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Ridgewater head hopes to see state bonding bill

WILLMAR -- Ridgewater College President Douglas Allen still hopes to see a state bonding bill that includes a $14.3 million improvement project for his Willmar campus.

Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a $1 billion bonding bill earlier this week and supplied a list of projects to make up half the total. It included the Ridgewater project. Dayton suggested the Legislature come up with projects to add up to $1 billion.

The Republican leadership gave Dayton's idea a cool reception and said the time is not right to talk about bonding.

However, Allen said, he has spoken with local legislators who are supportive of the Ridgewater project and remains hopeful that a bonding bill might still be adopted before the end of the session.

State Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said he expects that there will be hearings on a bonding bill. "I think once we have a handle on the budget, it's going to be easier to talk about that."

A bonding bill is always a possibility, particularly because the governor wants it, he added. "When the governor wants something, it usually gets heard."

Gimse said he has told his colleagues on the Senate Higher Education Committee that he would like to see the project funded.

"We'll all just have to see how it plays into the overall budget," he added.

The Ridgewater plan is the second phase of a plan to demolish outdated buildings, build an expansion and remodel space for the agriculture and veterinary programs in Willmar. The school has the largest two-year agriculture program in the state. The project is also designed to give the campus a more cohesive layout.

The first phase was approved in a bonding bill in 2008. The second phase was in the 2010 bonding bill but fell victim to former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's line-item veto.

Allen said he hasn't seen a governor try Dayton's approach before, but he found it interesting.

"There's no doubt the state has some serious infrastructure needs," he said. Bonding bills do result in construction jobs in communities around the state, he added.

The Ridgewater project is a large project, he said. It includes demolishing 23,000 square feet of outdated buildings; remodeling 77,000 square feet of existing space; and building 9,500 square feet of new facilities. It would provide a new campus entrance with a redesigned student services area and expanded space for the agriculture program.

The project has been through a thorough review process in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Since it was vetoed last year, it had to go through the process all over again this year and was still scored near the top of the system's needs, he said.

Allen said he was also concerned about potential budget cuts for the state's public colleges. Ridgewater's student count has increased about 500 students in the past five years, with a 2010 count of 6,011 students.

While student numbers have increased, the college's state appropriation has fallen -- from $14.5 million in fiscal year 2006 to $12.7 million in the current fiscal year 2011. The school has also reduced its staff by the equivalent of 12 full-time jobs in the past few years.

"I don't think the state's going to recover unless it invests in the education of its citizens," he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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