Bend four-year campus faces 2015 budget struggle

Of the Bend Bulletin

BEND — As OSU-Cascades battles a legal challenge to break ground on the first phase of its planned four-year campus, funding for later development may be in danger of being delayed.

For every legislative session, the state's public universities and the Higher Education Coordinating Committee work to put together a university capital request prioritization list.

Because state money for capital projects is limited, the list offers the Legislature and governor an idea of what projects are most important. University leaders meet to present their “tier one” projects — those they hope to see funded with the greatest urgency — which the Higher Education Coordinating Committee then orders into a prioritized list.

When Oregon State University — which oversees OSU-Cascades — submitted its list of projects, funds for the Bend branch ranked below three other projects.

As a result, the $30 million OSU-Cascades request for state support didn't even break the top 14, falling into an unordered second tier with eight other projects. In the second tier, funding is far from guaranteed.

“We would prefer to be in the top tier,” said Becky Johnson, an OSU vice president and the leader of OSU-Cascades. “I know there's a lot of requests, and it's always a matter of prioritizing, and I'm disappointed we're not in tier one. But the process isn't complete; there's still a lot of discussion between the universities and HECC to be had with the governor and Legislature. It's not over until the last day of the Legislature.”

Depending on how money is allocated in the state's budget, it's possible funding could cover tier one and beyond. However, even projects in the top tier may not be funded. Both scenarios have happened before, though the latter has been seen more often.

OSU-Cascades has already received $16 million in state bonds, backed by $4 million in university funds and just under $5 million in philanthropic support. That money is earmarked to develop a 10-acre parcel with dorms and academic buildings on Bend's west side, unless a pending land use challenge from residents is able to thwart the project.

Johnson said the $30 million request, which would be complemented with $10 million in university funds, would be used to turn an adjacent 46-acre pumice mine the university is considering for purchase into a workable campus. Money would also be used for an additional academic building, the placing of which hasn't been set, and to support the master planning process, which will be required by city code if the university purchases the mine.

“The 10-acre campus will get us through 2017, at which point we will reach capacity for the buildings we are planning right now,” Johnson said. “If we want the new building in place, we need bonds in the 2015-2017 session. If we can't do that, we'll need to figure out a plan B to accommodate our student population in 2017-2018.”

Johnson said the goal is to try to receive funding this session regardless of being placed in the second tier “without displacing anything else on the list.”

“Maybe we could move our request to the short 2016 session, but I don't know what the Legislature will do on capital then, but hopefully there will be money for tier two to move up” Johnson said. “If we have to wait just one year, instead of until the 2017-2019 session, we can lease space, double up in officers, do whatever it may take.”

Ahead of the OSU-Cascades project in tier one are requests for a $60 million forest science complex — ranked No. 2 overall and funded evenly by the state and OSU — and money for a planned marine studies campus at an existing OSU research center in Newport. There is also a request for $10 million in state funds to support accessibility improvements in Corvallis.

Steve Clark, an OSU vice president of university relations and marketing, said the university considers OSU-Cascades “a top priority,” despite placing three other projects above the branch campus in its list of capital project priorities.

“You know that's the case because you can see the work we are doing through the land use process, architectural design, engineering and planning,” Clark said. “The next phase is the campus buildings, but things occur in sequence, and we're working through a process with sequential outcomes.”

Clark noted that as OSU is required to provide money to complement any state funds, the availability of donor support is considered in OSU's internal ranking, something Johnson said may be playing a role in the high positioning of the forest science complex. Clark also stressed the importance of the university's tier one projects, noting OSU is a “global leader” in forest and marine science.

“There is an opportunity for (OSU-Cascades) to be funded in 2015, but whether that happens or not is up to the governor and Legislature,” Clark said. “The good news is we know the economy is improving, and OSU-Cascades is part of a very large university with momentum and the funding capacity to invest in its future.”

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