Gov.'s veto cuts tough on college
WILLMAR -- Ridgewater College officials expected to receive the final $14.5 million for their capital improvement project in the state bonding bill this spring.
So they were surprised and disappointed when Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his line item veto to remove the second phase of the Willmar campus project from a bonding bill over the weekend. He also removed many other building projects for public colleges around the state.
Work on the first phase of the project started about a year ago, using $3.5 million approved in the 2008 bonding bill. The work started with the understanding that the Legislature would approve the funding for the second phase in 2010.
The Legislature approved it, but then it ran into the governor's line item veto.
"Obviously we're disappointed," said Ridgewater President Douglas Allen. "We were all set to go." School officials were asked to split the project into two parts, with the understanding that both parts would be funded, he said.
Local legislators supported the project and tried to usher it through the process, Allen said, and he appreciated their efforts.
Allen said he was disappointed but reluctant to second-guess the governor -- "He did what he felt he had to do."
Still, the project means a lot to the programs that would be affected by it, he said. One of the goals of the expansion, demolition and remodeling project is to improve facilities for the college's agriculture and veterinary technology programs.
There are several two-year agriculture programs in the state, but Ridgewater's is the largest, Allen said.
"It's important that we do a good job in serving agriculture," he said.
College enrollment has been increasing across the state. Statewide, the number of students in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has increased nearly 8 percent in the past year.
Ridgewater's spring semester enrollment numbers have increased 6.4 percent since a year ago, to 4,229 students on the Willmar and Hutchinson campuses combined. The college has seen a 6.8 percent increase in its full-time equivalent count, up to 3,530 from 3,306 a year ago.
With the enrollment increases, "it just seems like a bad time not to invest in higher education," Allen said.
He is concerned that the agriculture department needs more space and needs to develop an agronomy lab. The college needs to keep up with the latest technology so students are ready to move into the workforce, he said.
Ridgewater's project will remain on MnSCU's project list, and lobbying will continue to get it included in the next state bonding proposal, Allen said.
"We're certainly going to keep fighting for it," said Sam Bowen, Ridgewater's director of marketing. "We are training a huge chunk of our ag work force here."
The second phase was also intended to give Ridgewater a more cohesive layout.
The Willmar campus used to have two separate schools, a community college and a technical college. They were merged in the 1990s, but there is still some duplicated space.
In the second phase the college will renovate space, redesign the student services area and create a new campus entrance with a reconfigured drive and parking lot. The second phase also includes demolition of buildings that are old or in poor condition.
In all, the college plans to demolish 23,000 square feet of outdated buildings; remodel 77,000 square feet of existing space; and build 9,500 square feet of new facilities.
Allen said the project is considered "right-sizing" and would actually decrease the overall square footage of the campus but have a more efficient facility.