Two members of the Utah Legislature, the vice president of Utah State University Extension department and USU Moab Associate Vice President Lianna Etchberger lobbied the Grand County Council for its financial support Tuesday in adding Extension services to the planned Moab campus.
While the council took no immediate action on the request for up to $500,000, two facts became clear: Members of the council support the plan, but – this second fact is the pesky kind – the county is about $1 million in debt after raising wages across the board last year to be more competitive in the job market.
State Reps. Carl Albrecht, District 70, which includes Grand County,
and Val Potter, District 3, Cache County, were present at the presentation, in part to ask the council to chip in on the $1.5 expansion after they did their part. When lawmakers were in session earlier this year the pair, along with State Sen. David Hinkley, whose District 27 includes Grand County, and Rep. Christine Watkins, whose District 69 includes Grand, successfully advocated for $1 million in funding for the expansion.
Dr. Ken White, vice president USU Extension department, said the Moab campus would join Davis County as the only two campuses in the state with extension and academics housed together. Housing the Extension department at the main campus would provide a vital service to the community, he said, such as getting questions answered and improving access to resources. Those resources include a wide array of services from help with agricultural or horticultural issues to assistance with improving parenting skills.
As a land grant institution, “it has a mandate to help make communities better,” said White.
He also said having the Extension available would help students who are members of Gen X, those born between 1965 and 1980 – after Baby Boomers and before Millennials – would provide “a nice opportunity to gently segue” into higher education.
The expansion would add office space, provide a “jump off” point for students who want to enter the STEM field, a demonstration kitchen and conference room, among other amenities.
Here’s the vision according to USU literature, “… to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ where citizens of Grand County and southeastern Utah can earn degrees through the regional campus and also learn ways to improve their lives, families and communities through research-based programs and other resources provided by USU Extension.”
If Grand County is going to participate, the money will have to be made available by the planned spring groundbreaking. If it isn’t, Plan B is to build the best facility they can with the $1 million from lawmakers. But Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird noted the county has already contributed $525,000 to the campus and is splitting costs with the City of Moab on $25,000 to pay back a Community Impact Board loan as part of the project.
Serious budget woes could hamper the county’s ability to meaningfully contribute. Baird noted that last year the county “basically took money out of the bank … we have not figured out how to pay back” after increasing payroll by $1.2 million. “We’re $1 million in debt,” he said.
Member Curtis Wells, who participated telephonically, indicated there might not be an easy out for the county since Utah law mandates counties provide a place for USU Extension to operate.
“I’d like the council to discuss Grand County’s responsibility to house Extension,” he said. Later, he said the council needs to “make the [commitment to fund the expansion] our priority or otherwise discuss where we will house Extension.”
One possible way out would be for the county to figure out how it could purchase the building housing the current Extension office, something Chair Evan Clapper was particularly interested in pursuing. Member Mary McGann and others voiced support for the expansion, but they also expressed concern over what will undoubtedly be “a tough budget year.”
McGann also said she has had conversations with a couple of corporate interests regarding donating to the campus and has gotten “soft” responses from one. “I think it’s time to get intentional with our asking,” she said, adding she will renew her efforts.
Curtis said the council would have to make a decision sooner rather than later, a comment that seemed to find consensus among members.
“This community is on the cusp of something fantastic,” said White. “This is something the community will never forget.”
Added Albrecht, “When you get higher education, it draws interest.” He also noted that other counties that provide higher education facilities see an improvement in economic development. Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine said USU-Moab is the “cornerstone” of much of his office’s focus.