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Highlands planning for student center

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By Don Pace

Highlands University took formal action to erect a new student center, and officials say they’ll seek student input.

Last week, Highlands University hosted a community meeting to get public input on preliminary concepts for updating the campus master plan as well as building the new student center.

“It’s a delight to have you here, whether you’re from the college community or the community at large. What we have to talk about this evening has long-term significance for all of us,” President Jim Fries told the large audience.

Fries said by and large things at the university are going well. He said enrollment is up, which means an adjustment in funding, and enrollment applications for this fall are about 38 percent ahead of this time last year. He talked about the numerous projects, renovations and residence hall that is currently under construction, on schedule and within budget.

“So there are a great many positive things happening at this university,” Fries said.

Fries said the campus master plan is part of an overall strategy to create the most attractive and functional campus possible.

“Building the new student center will offer new amenities that will help us better serve our growing student population on our main campus. Enhancing the quality of campus life for students is important for attracting students to our university, and then retaining them once they are enrolled,” Fries said.

Fries said the university’s capital construction projects such as the new residence hall and the new student center are good for the economic health of Las Vegas and surrounding communities.

Facilities and planning director Marisol Greene told the gathering, “The university wants to be a good neighbor and listen to community feedback.”

Greene said the university is committed to working hard to minimize impacts to neighbors during construction. She said site preparation on the new student center would begin in late 2009, with construction to begin in the spring of 2010.

Architects for the campus master plan update and architects for the student center gave presentations on their preliminary plans.

“Part of the master plan is to look beyond just the campus. It really needs to be respectful of the community, its culture, the history and heritage, the economics,” Chris Geddes of the Denver-based firm, INSITE, said. “So the reason we are here today is to get community input, because the university is part of the community and the community is part of the university. To make this a visionary plan, it needs to work with the vision of the people of Las Vegas.”

Geddes laid out a number of ideas that included a lot of lighting, open space, gateways and arches that let people know there is a university in the city.

Shary Adams of Albuquerque-based Studio Southwest Architects is charged with the design of the new student center.

The new student center will be at the former Columbia Supermarket site, and Mortimer Hall will be razed to create an open area for the center.

Mortimer Hall, named after long-time local physician and Highlands regent, the late Dr. H.M. Mortimer, has housed a number of departments, including humanities and social work.

During a question-and-answer session, audience members peppered Fries and the architects with questions about the flow of traffic, the necessity of a new building and the fake grass on campus.

Question: Where is the money coming from for the student center and what’s wrong with the existing student center?

Answer: Regarding the existing student center, Greene gave a list of reasons why the current facility was outdated, including the need for a new cafeteria and the fact that it was off the beaten path or a place that includes all the services students expect.

Fries said, “In terms of the money we have a mixture of general obligation bonds that were approved some years ago and severance tax bonds and general fund appropriations that total about $6.3 million. A good chunk of that money is what we are at risk of losing if we don’t act swiftly.

“The anticipated cost of the student center is in the neighborhood of $18 million, and the balance would come from a bond that the university would issue,” Fries said. “The debt service would come from student fees over a 25- to 30-year period. In June, we will make the final payment on all the bonded indebtedness the university has, other than the residence hall. Those monies will be shifted to covering the bulk of the debt service on the new bond for the student center. There will be a modest increase in student fees of what we think it’s going to take. So there’s no impact on taxpayers; it will be the users that will be paying for it.”

Question: My concern is noise pollution. Will your planning committees be able to work with the city, which is working on noise pollution ordinances concerning souped-up motorcycles, cars and trucks? If the university could work with the city, that would be wonderful for all of us who live in this area.

Answer: Greene said, “We have been partnering with the city and will continue to do so.” Fries said, “My office is right along National Avenue, and I don’t like air conditioners, so my windows are usually open and you have my total understanding.” 

Question: What’s the plan for xeriscaping and getting rid of the synthetic grass?

Answer: Greene said, “That is part of the master plan, but you can’t just rip it out because some sort of infrastructure will have to replace it. Even if we xeriscape, that will need water to get established, so we need to develop a plan before we take it out. But, yes, that’s our goal.  

Question: What is the rush to get this student center built?

Answer: “One reason for the project is to try to enhance the quality of student life, the problem with the current student center is it’s just too far out of everybody’s way,” Fries said. “So doing something that will create more interaction within the student body, faculty, staff and the community is a big part of how we are going to enhance the campus and make it an enjoyable and memorable experience for students. Also, with the economy where it is, it is going to be less expensive to build than it will three to five years from now because we are in a very competitive bidding environment.”

Vice President for Finance Bill Taylor said, “There has been no rush. We have been talking about this for about three years. It was approved by the Board of Regents and thoroughly vetted by the student senate.”

Question: How much student involvement will there be in building the student center? Also, will there be more activities for students so they don’t have to go out in town to find something to do, which sometimes causes problems?

Answer: Fries said, “Yes. The students will be involved. The intent of the student center is to create additional activities beyond what’s currently available. For example, there’s a theater and a variety of other things that will be in the student center to encourage students to stay on campus. But we certainly don’t want to discourage students from going off campus either. The town and university relationship is always something we need to strive to straighten and make sure it operates on a positive keel.”