Turning the Campus Outward

Starbucks, Chipotle, Panera.

These were the magic words spoken by UCM President Charles Ambrose Monday night as he unveiled a long-range vision for redevelopment on campus.

That vision is to “turn the campus outward,” Ambrose said.

It’s a brilliant notion. The university has long been a vital component of the community as thousands of students call Warrensburg home each fall through spring. But the perception is that the campus lives a cloistered existence apart from the community.

The president clearly recognizes this and is looking to the city as a partner at a time of uncertainty and severe cutbacks. Although Ambrose did not say specifically what he wants from the city, the city has tools to facilitate redevelopment.

And the university has some big redevelopment plans.

The university wants a fine arts center at the corner of South and Maguire.

Ambrose said a new fine arts center attached to Hendricks Hall at South and Maguire streets would create a more pleasing front door to the campus. But the signature project would replace the General Services Building (the physical plant) with a mixed-use development at Holden and South streets. Retail stores and restaurants would go on the first floor with a 320-bed residence hall upstairs, overlooking Walton Stadium.

“It would be mixed-use retail that you would not feel like you have to leave the city to find,” Ambrose said.

The idea is to attract more students to Central while connecting to the community with different shopping and dining options.

As state financing for higher education gets squeezed, the university has to lean on enrollment increases, cutbacks, private contributions and possible tuition hikes to make up the difference.

“Our economic model as a university, I’ll go ahead and say it, it’s broken,” Ambrose told the City Council. “It’s not a sustainable model. We’re probably only a fiscal year or two away from being able to continue to weather this storm and maintain the kind of employment base and the programs we have at their current levels.”

He said higher education has two alternatives.

The fine arts center entrance along South Street.

“It’s to stay on the leading edge and drive hard forward or it’s basically to atrophy and wither. We’re not going to choose the latter choice but we need your help.”

So, how in the world can the university take on such major construction projects? State financing is unlikely. Private contributions are more likely but uncertain. The city could help some through innovative financing, such as a sales tax sharing agreement to help pay for infrastructure costs. Property tax abatements are not an option for a public school.

Ambrose’s timing couldn’t have been any better. Later in the meeting, the council looked at revisions to its Innovative Financing Tools Development Guide.

The council did not ask for any policy changes with the revisions. Instead, the idea is to clearly outline the city’s policies regarding tax incentives. The previous guide simply described the different financing tools made available by state statute.

The new guide has a clear statement of policy with 23 things developers must satisfy in order to qualify for tax incentives.

The building in red would replace the physical plant with a mixed-use development at South and Holden.

This is an important document and one that will hopefully simplify an already complicated process. And hopefully it will lead to bigger and better deals down the road for Warrensburg.

Although this guide is still in rough draft form, it’s a shame the city did not it sooner. Maybe cooler heads would have prevailed when Jerry Franklin requested tax increment financing to help launch his Keystone development at U.S. 50 and 13 Highway.

If not through tax incentives, the city must find a way to help the university fulfill its long-range redevelopment plans. The sense of urgency in Ambrose’s message was clear. The city cannot afford to pass up this opportunity for growth.

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