By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent
Construction on Utah State University’s Moab campus will move forward, provided the City of Moab is able to raise $2 million by July 2019. During a presentation to the Moab City Council on Friday, Aug. 31, officials from USU provided a progress update and timeline for the future of the university’s proposed new campus in Moab. If the local community raises $2 million by July of next year, they will likely break ground on the “phase one” building in the spring of 2020.
Lianna Etchberger, executive director of USU’s Moab extension, presented the master plan for Moab’s campus to the city council. She gave a brief history of the extension, describing how in 2010 it only had two staff members and no faculty and now it has nine faculty members, six full-time staff and a handful of part-time employees. Using online teaching tools, the Moab extension offers over 50 different degrees and certificates. Over the past ten years, the extension has remained close to capacity with about 100 students each semester.
Moving forward, USU would like to add programs that cannot be done online, like nursing and construction. Etchberger mentioned they recently hired a consulting firm to help come up with ideas for programs “that fit Moab.” One new program they are considering is outdoor product design and development. Leaving the current extension buildings located at 125 West 200 South for a new campus about three miles south of Moab on Highway 191 would allow the university to expand both in student capacity and programs offered.
The building being dubbed “phase one” of USU Moab will increase the capacity to about 250-300 students. Etchberger said funding for regional campuses always comes from cooperation between the university and the community. She noted that USU President Noelle Cockett has committed $5 million to the project. Originally, the plan was to build a $10 million building, but given the relatively short timeframe, they decided the Moab community’s fund-raising capabilities were insufficient to generate $5 million. Thus, the phase one building was shrunk and the price tag dropped to $7 million.
As a land grant university, Etchberger said USU has a “mandate to be out and provide extension services and education throughout the state.” For that reason, Etchberger said USU Moab will start as a regional campus rather than a destination one. She explained the difference between the two comes down to availability of housing and the areas from which students are recruited.
As a regional campus, the priority of USU Moab will be to serve the educational needs of Grand County, not recruit students from elsewhere. David Woolstenhulme, USU’s new vice president of regional campuses said, “Our philosophy is we do what needs to be done for that community… Whatever it is that Grand County needs, that’s where we really want to focus our efforts.”
Though USU Moab will remain a regional campus for the foreseeable future, it is important to remember this is only phase one. Turning Moab into a destination campus is something being considered and planned. Woolstenhulme said Moab may transition to a destination campus “when the opportunity comes.” He added, “I think the timing has to be right with the city, the timing has to be right with the university, and we all have to be able to understand what we’re doing.” Woolstenhulme also emphasized the university’s push to bring specialized programs that could theoretically draw more students to Moab. “To go out and recruit all across the country to bring students to Moab, that’s not where we’re going at this point. Will we get there down the road in a few years? Maybe, but there’s going to have to be a lot of discussions, a lot of planning, a lot of infrastructure and a lot of things to do,” he said. “To be clear, the master plan is for a destination campus,” added Etchberger.
Even as a regional campus, Woolstenhulme and Etchberger discussed how the extension could be a driver of economic development for Moab. Woolstenhulme said the university’s primary role in economic development is workforce training. He claimed the university works with local employers to develop programs that prepare students for success and keep them in the community. “We’ll make sure there’s a trained workforce here, because that’s what we do,” he said. Etchberger illustrated that point by talking about USU Moab’s recently added nursing program that started when the hospital expressed its need for surgery technicians.
The USU representatives told the city council that it is imperative $2 million be raised within the next year. While USU’s president has promised $5 million for the project, that funding is not set in stone. Woolstenhulme said, “That money could disappear if we don’t act and act in a reasonable amount of time… there’s no fear of that right now, but the longer we go the more opportunity that money could get used for another project.” To begin construction in spring 2020, USU would need the $7 million on hand by July to go through the building board for approval and the Utah Legislature to acquire funding for the building’s ongoing operations and management. Woolstenhulme told the council that the fundraising effort will depend on finding individual donors who have some connection to the Moab community. The council’s role will be to reach out to local philanthropists who have the ability and desire to contribute to the project. An advisory committee to guide the fundraising efforts has been established, but a concrete plan and set milestones still need to be developed.
The three city council members present at the meeting all expressed their support for USU Moab. Rani Derasary said she is excited about the project, but she also noted her concern about USU Moab’s impact on affordable housing. Woolstenhulme said the university would be happy to help address housing issues, but the decisions will ultimately come down to the City of Moab and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Council member Mike Duncan said he’s “all for it,” and that while he has heard residents express concerns about rapid growth of the university, he doesn’t share those concerns. Kalen Jones said he is “very supportive of the university providing education here” and he is “excited for the possibility of growth.” He noted his main area of concern is coordination between the campus and the community.
Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus discussed the importance of outreach to let the community know USU Moab’s direction. She said it will be necessary to inform people of the difference between a regional and a destination campus. “I want to say how very supportive I am of USU expanding its operations in Moab,” Niehaus said. She added, “This council has two jobs: one is to effectively communicate to the community that we’ve got $2 million to raise… the second piece is that it is our responsibility as a council to communicate with SITLA [about housing].”