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Head East: Why Bend could be Oregon’s next college town 

OSU-Cascades will begin to pursue a four-year educational program.

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Editor's note: Campus images by Ambient Architecture.

It turns out that the second time was the charm for Becky Johnson and OSU-Cascades. The charismatic dean who likes to ski, hike, fly fish and play golf spent two decades at OSU as a professor and a top administrator in Corvallis before she threw her hat in the ring to lead Oregon State University’s fledgling university project in Bend. Johnson, who helped to write the strategic plan for the campus, seemed like the perfect fit.

But it wasn’t to be, at least not yet.

The university tapped another administrator to lead the Central Oregon campus. Johnson went back to work on projects closer to home, assuming the role of vice provost for academic and international affairs and amassing an impressive list of accomplishments at the college including helping to lead the college’s strategic plan development in 2007.


 

And Johnson was just settling in for the long haul in Corvallis, having bought a new house on the golf course, when her boss came calling with a request: Would you move to Bend and take the job on a temporary basis that you didn’t get back in 2001.

Johnson didn’t hesitate, and although she still hasn’t sold the golf course home in Corvallis, she hasn’t looked back. She signed on as the permanent vice president at OSU-Cascades after just four months on the job but not before helping to save the OSU-Cascades, which legislators put on the chopping block in April 2009 as part of a budget showdown in Salem. In the three years since that brush with disaster, the college has thrived under Johnson’s leadership; enrollment has grown by double digits over the past three years.

Thanks in part to the enrollment growth and the community support, which included a sizeable private donation to help fund the acquisition of the new graduate studies building in the Mill Point area near the Deschutes Brewery, the university announced that it's getting ready to double down on its investment in Bend by pledging to develop a stand-alone campus and four-year degree program here over the next half decade. The news, which was delivered formally by University President Ed Ray is the most unequivocal demonstration of OSU’s long-term commitment to Bend.

It’s a move that could set the stage for a sustained and multi-million dollar investment that, over the long-term, may remake Bend’s economy into the kind of high-tech hub that area leaders have long envisioned.

“This is the single biggest opportunity to advance higher education and economic development in one shot for Central Oregon,” said Jason Conger, Bend’s representative in the Oregon House who worked on the legislation that paved the way for OSU to purchase the graduate studies building.

That purchase in 2011 catalyzed the discussion about how to grow the OSU-Cascades branch from an appendage of Central Oregon Community College into a stand-alone campus that operates under the umbrella of Oregon State University.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Under the plan that was outlined by President Ray in Bend last month, Oregon State University would begin building and expanding on its existing programs, in part by adding classes for freshman and sophomores, a job that OSU-Cascades has, until now, left to COCC.

The goal is to have 2,000 students enrolled by 2019. To do that, the college will need about 90,000 square feet of building space for classrooms and administration. That’s well more than can be provided at COCC, where both OSU-Cascades and COCC are crunched for space.

Under the scenario that’s being proposed by OSU officials and backed by COCC, OSU-Cascades would give up the lease on its classroom building on COCC’s campus and begin growing out from the graduate studies building on Colorado Avenue. To do that, OSU is requesting roughly $20 million from the state legislature in the 2013 session.

Whether OSU gets some or all of that money could depend on a host of factors, including the overall economic recovery, the health of lottery receipts, the state’s bonding capacity, and the ability of OSU-Cascade backers to get the project prioritized over other funding needs before the legislature.

So far they are off to a solid start.

Just last week the Oregon State Board of Higher Education reviewed and ranked the slate of projects from across the state’s university system. While not at the top of the list, the Cascades campus funding request came in among the top third and was third on the list of four projects from Oregon State University.

That puts the campus firmly in the funding conversation, said Dianne Saunders, director of communications for the chancellor’s office. Of course it will be up to legislators to determine how many projects to fund and at what level. However, assuming that the legislature allocates public dollars on par with historical averages for higher education capitol projects, and those are doled out project by project as they move down the wish list, it’s likely that OSU-Cascades would be in line for funding.

After a decade of instability, OSU administrators say they are ready to go to bat for the Bend campus.

“This isn’t something that’s twelfth on our list. That’s a joke. We’re only talking about three projects, and it’s one of them,” said Ed Ray, OSU’s president in an interview last week.

Whatever the legislature does, Conger believes the community will need to come up with some of the dollars privately, just as it did with the graduate studies building where former Mayor Allan Bruckner gave $800,000 to the campaign. And just as with that project, the university is counting on the state to come up with Oregon Lottery dollars to provide significant funding, roughly $6 million of the $20 million in total public dollars.

At this point it’s not clear how much money legislators will have to work with next year. Lottery receipts have not grown as fast as their historical averages, Conger said. However, the state is retiring some debt and has refinanced some other obligations, freeing up some capacity. But the competition is expected to be fierce for those dollars.

Still Conger is confident.

“Ultimately we will win this because of the support of the community which has been demonstrated over the long term… and then combine that with the other creative financial tools and the opportunity to buy additional capacity at that price,” said Conger, referring to the notion that OSU can buy cheaper in Bend than it can build in Corvallis.

A PLACE TO CALL HOME

Looking at the mix of high tech and financial services businesses along the rather suburban feeling stretch of Colorado Avenue south of downtown Bend, it might be hard to envision a college campus taking root. Johnson and others see it, however, and they’ve started to assemble the pieces, or at least to set the stage for the conversation. At this point the college is eyeing roughly five properties that are around or near its existing building in the Mill Point development.

Officials have already started discussing the possibility of a wholesale acquisition with the owner, Bonnett Properties that also sold OSU the adjacent graduate studies and administration building. While Johnson characterized the relationship as “good” it’s not a given that the two sides can reach a deal that fits within the university’s budget.

“He sees the vision, but he’s not going to give it to us,” Johnson said.

If the two sides were able to broker a transaction, it would allow the university to begin aggressively growing its enrollment toward the goal of having 5,000 students by 2025.

While it may look like an ambitious plan for an institution that has one leased building on a community college campus and another located several miles away in a business park, backers say that there is a window of opportunity for the state to act boldly with regard to OSU-Cascades. Fueled in part by the governor’s commitment to shore up public education in the state and his 40-40-20 plan that envisions 40 percent of all high school graduates completing at least a four-year degree, Oreogn State University continues to grow. But the school is running out of capacity at the flagship campus in Corvallis, where traffic congestion, housing and the cost of adding new classrooms have all become obstacles to sustained long-term growth, said President Ray.

“The reality is we’re at 25,000 students. We’re already feeling pressure in terms of there are some circumstances to be mitigated, parking problems, worries about livability long term. So how much of a student population can we sustain in Corvallis?” Ray said.

Given the 10-year relationship and the leadership team in place, Bend looked like the natural place to grow. There is also a simple matter of economics. New construction can run up to $400 per square foot for institutions like OSU and COCC. But with Bend’s relative surplus of office space, OSU estimates it can acquire and re-purpose existing buildings for somewhere on the order of $250 per square foot.  In the short term that would allow OSU-Cascades to purchase and lease the buildings out to commercial tenants while it grows enrollment. Over time those buildings would be pulled into the campus as needed. One bonus of that approach is that it would allow the college to tap a temporary revenue stream in the form of lease payments. That’s money that could be used for remodeling or bond repayment.

The vision is about more than just repurposing office buildings. Johnson sees a genuine college campus sprouting forth from the Mill Quarter complete with student housing and a commons area all within walking distance of the Old Mill and the Deschutes River. The college also has an option on roughly five acres of the former Mt. Bachelor park and ride lot that the Bend Park District acquired out of foreclosure in 2011. That’s an area that OSU is eyeing for university buildings and possibly a cooperative venture with Bend Parks District.

According to that vision, grass pedestrian areas, more befitting a campus, would link office buildings that today are connected by asphalt parking lots. Similarly, the corporate offices would be retooled to suit their role as campus classrooms, a significant undertaking for which OSU hopes to set aside several million dollars to complete.

“I can just see this place as a campus. For me the most exciting part is the vision,” Johnson said.

While there is still much work to be done, OSU officials say the days of wondering whether or not the college will be here in two years or five years are gone. The only questions now are how big and how soon.

“I think we have a completely different place on the radar screen. We’ve shown that we can grow. We can recruit students,” Johnson said.

What Comes Next? COCC and OSU-Cascades look to close one chapter and open another

The announcement that Oregon State University-Cascades is ending its educational partnership with Central Oregon Community College in order to pursue a stand-alone four-year degree program didn’t come as a surprise to COCC officials who have been working closely with OSU-Cascades on its long-term plans. And while it’s not necessarily an endpoint in the relationship, it is a new chapter, say leaders at both schools.

Beginning in 2015, there will be some competition for incoming freshman and sophomore students who previously had only one choice if they wanted to study in Central Oregon—COCC. However, officials say they don’t expect a seismic shift in the educational landscape anytime soon.“It would be wrong to assume there wouldn’t be a single student of ours that would end up as a part of the freshman class at OSU. It would be equally wrong to assume there would be a mass exodus of students over to OSU,” said Jim Middleton, COCC president.

In the big picture, the positives of having a stand-alone four-year institution outweigh the negatives of competition, he said.

Those benefits include the ability to recruit and, in some cases, share quality faculty members. Having OSU-Cascades in the picture would also broaden COCC’s appeal beyond the Bend-Redmond area because of OSU’s national and international reach. In the end, COCC and OSU are different institutions with different missions attracting different students, Middleton said.

COCC is an open enrollment college that accepts all students who apply, while OSU-Cascades can pick and chose its student body, or at least apply some minimum admission standards. There’s also the difference in cost. COCC’s tuition is about 25 percent to 30 percent less than OSU-Cascades.

And there are possibilities for future collaboration that could benefit both institutions, such as an applied baccalaureate program that would allow two-year college students with technical degrees to add another two years of general studies and finish with a four-year degree in a non-traditional degree field, an approach that has proved popular in other markets because of the focus on developing a marketable skill with a university pedigree at a reduced cost.

“What it does is it builds a core of the liberal arts courses for an advanced technical skill that sits on top of that,” Middleton said.

There’s also a practical reason to embrace the separation sooner rather than later. Namely, COCC is in need of more classroom space and in short order. If OSU-Cascades can leave the COCC campus, COCC can move into that space at an affordable price, saving the college anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000 in construction costs.

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