Construction projects on hold after slow down in donations

by Emily SchettlerEditor in Chief

Many students expected to come back to campus this fall to the sight of bulldozers and construction equipment and contractors working on the expansion of the Blank Performing Arts Center. But the BPAC and the area surrounding it look the same as they did last year, the ground untouched.

Simpson College is currently in the process of raising funds for two capital projects, an expansion and renovation of the BPAC and a new student center, but the economic recession of the last year has caused a slowdown in contributions to both.

“The downturn in the economy has made it more difficult to raise money, so I would say that our progress has slowed significantly since last fall,” President John Byrd said.

The BPAC project is expected to cost $6.3 million. School officials said they’ve raised around $4.4 million. Costs for the new student center are estimated at $21 million, of which about $8 million has been raised.

Blank Performing Arts Center

Originally, administrators had hoped to have the BPAC project completed by Simpson College’s 150th Anniversary celebration in 2010. Now Byrd said he hopes to start construction on the project within the next year.

“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to begin construction on the Blank Center sometime in the next 12 months,” Byrd said. “We had hoped to begin construction this last summer but one of the major sources of funding that we were looking for fell through, and as a result, we’re continuing the process of identifying potential donors.”

Bob Lane, vice president of college advancement, is optimistic that they will be able to raise the remaining $2 million dollars for the student center soon, and that when they do, the project will help re-energize the campus community.

“We’ve got requests out that could get us to where we would like to be to be able to break ground this spring,” Lane said. “If we have success with those requests, not only do we think it will be energizing and exiting for the campus community, in the case of the construction project, it will be a very positive statement considering what has happened with the economy.”

Lane estimated that once work begins, construction could take 12-18 months, depending on weather.

Student Center

Talks of constructing a new student center began in 2002 when Simpson’s Board of Directors listed the project as a goal of their campus vision plan. When President Byrd came to Simpson in 2005, he made raising funds for the center a primary goal.

He worked with the Student Government Association at the time to institute an increase in the student activity fee to help pay for the center. Students began paying the additional $100 in 2006-07.

At the time, officials hoped to break ground on the student center in 2010. Now, Byrd says there is no set time line for construction to begin.

“It couldn’t come soon enough for me,” Byrd said. “This is a building we need today. It’s very difficult to predict when construction will begin.”

Byrd also pointed out that the Brenton Student Center was built when the student population was about half the size it is now.

Decision Time

The agreement made between Byrd and SGA in 2006 stated that if ground was not broken by 2010, the student fee associated with the student center would be suspended. With $13 million left to raise, it is unlikely that construction will begin next year, and now it’s up to students to decide what happens next with the student fee.

According to the resolution, passed by SGA in 2005, the collection of the fee will be suspended and will not be re-instated until construction on the actual center begins.

The plan calls for the fee to be collected for 25 years, with the amount increasing by $15 every four years. If SGA and students decide to continue, the amount will increase to $115 for the 2010-11 school year.

To date, the student fee has raised about $577,900 for the center, according to Rich Ramos, assistant dean of students.

SGA president Drew Riebhoff said he and several other SGA members will be meeting with Byrd about the possibility of continuing the fee.

Lane said the students’ contributions send a strong message to potential donors.

“That’s a pretty emotional and powerful statement to take out to the general population of our alumni and supporters to say that the students believe so much in the future of the institution (…) that they’re willing to encourage future generations of students to help fund this project because they know what it could mean to the college,” Lane said.

Riebhoff said that while he understands the importance of the fee, it may be difficult for students to agree to if no definite time line is set.

“I think a big opinion with a lot of students is that they want to support the student center, obviously, but are uncomfortable not having a definite plan,” Riebhoff said.

Byrd and Lane both said they are hopeful students will see the importance of contributing to the campaign.

“I think it would be unfortunate if the students elected discontinue their support,” Lane said. “What happened with the economy isn’t anyone’s fault, and we still want to do this project.”

Byrd said the contribution is important for the “long term health and well-being of Simpson.”

“The original students who passed the fee to help support that project knew they would never step food in that building as a student,” Byrd said. “They did it because they wanted to leave a legacy. They wanted to leave Simpson with the opportunity to be stronger as a result of what they did here.”

Byrd also pointed out that some other schools institute such fees without any input from students.

“My philosophy as president is that this is a project students very much want to happen, and it’s been my hope that we could always work together,” Byrd said. “I don’t like the feel of necessarily imposing a fee for that. I’d much rather work together and get us all on the same page.”

Lane said he does not think that forcing a fee on students would be a wise thing.

“We (Simpson) don’t start tagging on lots of extra fees and nickel and dime people here and there,” Lane said. “I think we can all take a sense of pride in the fact that this was the students’ idea to support this project and for the college to all of the sudden mandate a fee to build such a facility would be wrong.”

In a recent survey issued by SGA, 53 percent of students who participated said they were willing to continue to pay the $100 per year fee. In total, 209 students answered the survey question.

Freshman Heidi Scott said she thinks students should continue to support the student center.

“It’s really just $100,” Scott said. “In the big scheme of things, $100 is not going to affect students that greatly.”

Junior Keeley O’Keefe said she is in favor of supporting the student center, as long as certain things, such as eco-friendly construction, are taken into consideration.

“I feel like they should make sure the plan is feasible,” O’Keefe said. “I would continue to pay if it’s energy efficient.”

Where will funding come from

Private colleges throughout the state have been working on capital projects to update their campuses and entice potential students. Several of those schools have taken out bonds to fund such projects.

Byrd said that it has always been the school’s mission to keep debt to a minimum, which is one reason they plan to raise all or nearly all of the funds needed for each project before construction begins.

“It’s been the philosophy here at Simpson to minimize the use of debt in building new facilities,” Byrd said.

Lane said that in light of the recent economic downturn, school officials have tried to re-focus their energy.

“Because things are so much more competitive and challenging with the economy, we’re trying to get the Blank project going first because it’s a smaller project (…) but we’re still seeking funds for the student center,” he said.

Simpson has been looking for funding from a variety of sources, from alumni and individual donors to corporations and foundations.

“I think we’ve received wonderful support for both projects in a variety of ways, whether it’s been through a federal earmark for the Blank project for equipment to bequest money put towards these projects to foundation support to individual gifts of all shapes and sizes from very modest gifts to very large gifts,” Lane said. “We’ve been very fortunate. And we’ll continue to raise funds, I’m confident of that.”