Wrench in OSU-Cascades expansion plans

By Lauren Dake The Bulletin

SALEM — Oregon State University-Cascades Campus officials have hit a financial snag in their efforts to expand to a four-year university.

And without a fix this upcoming legislative session, OSU-Cascades Vice President Becky Johnson said, “it throws a real wrench into the whole campus expansion.”

Here’s the gist: OSU-Cascades would like to get out of its lease on the Cascades Hall building, which is owned by Central Oregon Community College and on the COCC campus.

That’s fine with COCC. The community college would like to renovate the building and use it for more classroom space and student services.

But in order to retire the debt still owed by OSU-Cascades, COCC said it would need $5.26 million. And how it receives the money matters.

COCC is hoping for $3.63 million in the form of a matching bond from the state, which would need to be matched dollar-for-dollar in order to be tapped.

To match the $3.63 million, the community college is lobbying for another $1.63 million in state lottery bonds, which don’t require a match. COCC would kick in another $2 million from its own coffers.

To complicate it further, the Legislature did give COCC $5.3 million in its 2013-15 capital construction budget, but because it’s in the form of a matching bond, requiring the community college to match the funding, it didn’t help.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, said he’s working to “put this deal to rest.”

But he noted there are a lot of people asking for capital construction money and there are no guarantees. Plus, state lawmakers could be reticent to give cash free and clear to one community college to help with building costs at a time when state money is in short supply and community colleges and universities across the state are vying for limited resources.

“My opinion is we need to settle old financing things like this before we can take care of new ‘asks’ and new issues,” Huffman said.

COCC President Jim Middleton said he sees it as a “fiscally responsible and operationally creative” solution.

“We’re looking at using less state money, less local money; it allows OSU-Cascades to have a single, contiguous campus, and it provides COCC with the additional building it needs,” Middleton said.

Without a way to retire the debt on the Cascades Hall lease, Johnson said, OSU-Cascades’ current plans could come to a halt. The university would have to stay in the old building and expanding elsewhere would be very difficult, if not impossible.

OSU-Cascades officials are also asking the state for $3.85 million to go toward building its first academic building. But if it can’t get out of the debt first, “all bets are off,” Johnson said.

Cascades officials are no stranger to the legislative process or traveling to Salem to lobby lawmakers. The campus went from facing possible closure in 2009, to being singled out in 2012 by Gov. John Kitzhaber as a campus deserving of funds to become a four-year university.

And Johnson said if all goes well, the university will be expanding, reaching 5,000 students by 2025, and will continue logging miles to the state Capitol.

“If we grow at the rate we want, we’re going to need something every biennium,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-554-1162, ldake@bendbulletin.com