GONZALES — The first phase of construction on a new River Parishes Community College campus has started at the Edenborne development in Gonzales.

Approximately 150 to 200 people, including a number of elected officials along with college staff and faculty members, attended a formal groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning. It wasn’t just a typical ceremonial groundbreaking, however, as just yards away several dump trucks and bulldozers actually were moving piles of dirt on the site of the new campus.

The community college purchased 43 acres at the Edenborne site, located off La. 44 south of Interstate 10 in Gonzales, and plans to construct a new $17 million, 81,000-square-foot facility that will house the college’s academic programming and administrative offices, nearly tripling the current capacity of the college’s leased home on La. 22 in Sorrento.

“It is going to be a beautiful facility, but it’s only the beginning of what’s going to happen here,” said Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

After the first phase is completed, which is expected to happen in the spring of 2014, the college will begin construction of five buildings south of the main building for an Advanced Technology Center, which will house all of the college’s technical programming. Upon completion, it will mark the first time all of the college’s programs will occupy the same campus since River Parishes Community College merged with Louisiana Technical College’s Ascension campus in 2010.

College officials hailed Thursday as a great day for both the college and the community.

“It’s been a long journey, more than 13 years, to get to this place,” said Bill Martin, RPCC’s executive vice chancellor.

River Parishes Community College started in the fall of 1999 with 117 students in a rented campus near I-10 on La. 22 in Sorrento.

Today, the college has more than 3,600 students and has broken ground on the first campus that the college ever will own outright.

Martin said much of the credit for the growth and direction the college has taken through the years belongs to its chancellor, Joe Ben Welch, who has been the head of the college since his hiring in 1998.

“It’s been his vision and his persistence that has gotten us to this place,” Martin said.

Welch gave “a huge thank you” to a number of people who attended Thursday’s gathering, including about two dozen faculty members. In addition, he choked up and became emotional while citing the “overwhelming” community support for the college.

May said that while RPCC officials plan to construct a beautiful campus, it’s not just about buildings. Instead, he said, it’s about the role the college can play in the community.

“I think this is one of those projects everyone can get behind because it was for the right reasons and the right cause,” May said.