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Campus construction booming despite budget cuts

With warnings about additional cuts to higher education and students taking to the streets to protest rising tuition, officials on Colorado campuses are having a hard time explaining all the new buildings popping up.

Thing is, it’s actually a good time to build despite a virtual freeze in construction money from the state. Nice new buildings attract students who, in turn, bring revenue along with their burning desire to gain knowledge. You can thank a friendly bond market, generous donors and even students who voted to pay higher fees. But don’t expect the boom to last.

Chris Cocallas, campus architect
and director of capital planning and construction at the Colorado School of Mines, said construction is going gangbusters on the Golden campus. That’s because the projects are largely cash-funded and not relying on ever-dwindling state dollars. In addition, bond interest rates are historically lower than average – making big projects more affordable for cash-strapped schools.

At Mines, Brown Hall, the main engineering building, is being expanded to include more cutting-edge labs/classrooms and to enhance cross-pollination between engineering disciplines. Brown is also the only project happening now that has any state dollars attached to it. The school is also in the midst of building a 291-bed residence hall.

Then there’s Marquez Hall– a state-of-the-art, $25 million facility for teaching, research and service being paid for by oil and gas companies or those who have made their fortunes on petroleum.

A new health and wellness center is also in the works.

“Jobs already being planned ended up being more attractive because bonding was available for them at a lower rate,” Cocallas said. “We’re busier right now than I think this campus has ever been.”

However, Cocallas said once the projects are completed “it might slow down quite a bit.”

“We’re looking at next year as being a really tough budget year for us.”

Deferred maintenance remains deferred

Then there’s the eternal problem of deferred maintenance. While all these flashy new buildings come on-line, the old ones sink deeper into disrepair and obsolescence.

“We’re trying to plan for it by saving a few dollars to offset that,” Cocallas said. “We keep up with them as best we can.”

The University of Colorado at Boulder has a backlog of $300 million in deferred maintenance at the same time it has 280 large and very small building projects underway worth $530 million, according to Vice Chancellor for Administration Frank Bruno.

In fact, it’s a banner year for construction at CU as well.

Perhaps the most notable thing going up on the main Boulder campus is the sprawling Center for Community building. The $84.4 million, mostly donor-funded structure features 302,000 square feet of dining hall and student center services such as Career Services, Counseling and International Education. The dining center on the lower levels consolidates two older dining operations into one, creating a central campus commissary and bakery that can serve 900 students.

Center for Community building

Center for Community building

T. Cheshier

There will also be a two-story underground parking garage, payments from which are expected to cover the building’s debt service. The building should be almost complete by next fall.

Then there’s the new, $179.9 million systems biotechnology building on the east campus, a building credited with luring Nobel Prize-winning chemistry professor Tom Cech back to CU from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The building will feature flexible lab design supported by state-of-the-art technology built around the concept of interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

CU officials say the building will “add to the growing success that CU-Boulder has seen in grant awards and technology transfer.” The facility also includes an auditorium, seminar rooms, an open meeting area gallery, a café and conference rooms organized around a “main street” theme.

The school is also preparing to break ground on a new basketball and volleyball training facility next to the Coors Events Center.

“(Projects) go forward rather quickly once you have funding assembled,” Bruno said. “If it’s debt financed you can go out and bond for it. We’re getting good rates on our bonds. We’re seeing projects coming in under budget and on time, which is not always something that happens.”

Questions arise: How can you pay for this?

Bruno said he does find himself answering a lot of questions.

“It leaves people scratching their heads. The admissions office sees parents excited we’re doing work and not just languishing but it does create questions for them, ‘How can you do this?’”

“It is a fine line we walk in terms of improving the campus, taking care of what we have, seizing opportunities of the marketplace to get great bids and great prices and bring projects under budget and on schedule.”

However, capital renewal projects – non-sexy things like replacing a heating or cooling system in a dormitory – are on the skids. CU-Boulder had to back off $24 million plans to spruce up aging Eckley sciences and Ketchum arts and sciences building due to a freeze in state funds. Half of CU-Boulder’s buildings were built more than 45 years ago.

Building is also happening at Colorado State University-Pueblo. CSU-Pueblo has built a new residence hall and student recreation center, a football stadium complex and a student recreation field with a combination of student fees, donor contributions and grants, according to the Pueblo Chieftain.

The Chieftain reported the school improved its baseball and softball fields and upgraded its Psychology Building and library with no state money. The newspaper reported that from 2007-2009, CSU-Pueblo has completed more than $107 million in cash-funded projects and just one state-funded project that cost $14 million, that being the renovation of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation building, which includes Massari Arena.

The biggest cash-funded project was the construction of three 250-bed residence halls. CSU-Pueblo plans to pay back loans with money from housing fees.

At CSU’s main Fort Collins campus, $450 million worth of capital construction projects begun in 2006 are in their final phases. Projects include the student-fee funded, $45 million Academic Instruction Building slated to be done by this summer and the $52 million bond-financed Research Innovation Center. CSU is also in the planning stages of getting approvals for $141 million in self-funded projects from fees and auxiliary funds for the 2010-2011 year to pay for 10 projects, the largest of which is a new $65 million engineering facility that will house cutting-edge labs, classrooms and offices.

Nate Haas, spokesman for the University of Northern Colorado, said an $11.5 million renovation of Butler-Hancock Hall sports pavilion is underway. The project includes fixing up the first-floor locker area, creating additional storage space and classrooms and reconfiguring the building’s main entrance. The project is funded by bonds issued by the state through Certificates of Participation. Some dorm rooms are also being improved.

Adams State transforms campus

Bill Mansheim, vice president of finance and administration at Adams State College in Alamosa, credits students willing to take on more fees and the great rates on the municipal bond market with helping to transform the campus.

Two years ago, students agreed to pay $10 extra per credit hour in fees for campus improvements, with the amount climbing 7 percent per year for a decade. There’s about $50 million in construction projects happening now. Some dorms are being remodeled and student apartments are being built around the stadium. There is also a plan to move Stadium Drive because it dissects the main student housing area. There’s a push to purge concrete and grow grass.

“We are trying to make our campus a more pedestrian-friendly, eye-appealing campus,” Mansheim said.

Times are good for all that.

“When things really tanked in the economy, the bond market went much lower,” Mansheim said. “It is even that much more attractive because Build America bonds came out. We were able to secure another $29 million in financing a year head of schedule because of that program.”

Adams is just beginning to design a major remodel of the education building and the music concert hall. Ten percent of the student fee will go toward controlled maintenance, and some of the money also goes to scholarships for those students who can’t afford to pay the fee.

Students seem to like what’s going on. Fall enrollment was up 18 percent bringing the student population to 3,369. Applications for next fall are up 38 percent.

The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs is wrapping up seven years of major building projects totaling $140 million, said Brian Burnett, vice chancellor for administration and finance.

“We’re using alternative sources of funds to build academic buildings,” Burnett said. “Right now we’re finishing a $17 million renovation of a science building built in 1980 when we had 3,000 students. Today, we have 8,500 students.”

Last August, the school completed a $55 million science and engineering building, an academic enterprise that would have once been totally paid for by the state. This time, the state kicked in 40 percent. CU-Colorado Springs had to beg and borrow the rest. The campus’ new $9 million events center was entirely paid for by student fees, alumni gifts, a contribution from the CU president and loans.

“We’re enjoying very much a buyer’s market right now, which is good for our projects,” Burnett said. “It’s a great time to invest in new buildings. But once this wave of investment is used up, there’s not much in the pipeline unless you’re building it yourself.”

Not even for basic classroom maintenance.

Not long ago, CU-Colorado Springs had to sink $400,000 into University Hall because of haywire heating and ventilation and an air conditioner leaking into a classroom. In the past, that sort of thing was covered by the state.

“Four hundred thousand dollars is a big number for our campus,” Burnett said. “It’s a challenge.”

EdNews writer Julie Poppen can be reached at jpoppen@ednewscolorado.org .