Mesa State expansion changes college

Mesa State College President Tim Foster stands inside the new $30 million College Center, which the college hopes to open by November. A $183 million burst of campus construction began in the mid-1990s, when concerns arose that the college might have to move its campus from the heart of Grand Junction. City and civic leaders responded with a fundraising campaign that helped the college purchase $11 million of property for new facilities.

The car coasted by the corner of 12th Street and North Avenue, carrying the woman who was considering becoming the face of the local business community as the new chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Diane Schwenke peered out and spotted the sign for Mesa State College. What she saw wasn’t a highlight of her tour of the Grand Valley.

“I looked around and thought, ‘Where’s the college?’ ” she said.

“It looked to me like an expanded high school. It really did not show well, as they say in real estate.”

That was 21 years ago.

Today, it’s impossible not to see, hear or feel Mesa State’s burgeoning presence in the community.

It’s in the El Pomar Natatorium, a state-of-the-art Olympic-size swimming pool contained within the Maverick Center and Hamilton Student Recreation Center, a $42 million renovation and expansion project completed last year.

It’s in the North Avenue Student Housing complex, a series of suites and apartments for 300-some students who can grab a cup of coffee and a sandwich and get a haircut without stepping away from their dorm.

And soon it will be in the new College Center, a massive structure with two dining rooms, a convenience store and coffee bar that will be open round-the-clock and a 500-seat, high-ceiling ballroom that guests will enter after ascending a grand staircase.

Surging enrollment

By the end of this year, Mesa State will have sunk more than $183 million into new, remodeled and expanded classrooms, student housing and athletic facilities since 1997. Among Colorado’s 12 four-year public colleges and universities, that level of capital construction spending ranks behind only the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, according to a Daily Sentinel analysis of data provided by the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Surging enrollment has been the driving force behind capital spending. Mesa State enrollment shot from 4,742 in 1995-96 to 7,043 in 2009-10, an increase of nearly 49 percent, which was topped only by the Colorado School of Mines’ 53 percent jump.

Those students also have shouldered a sizable chunk of the cost of construction. In the past 15 years, Mesa State’s annual tuition has nearly tripled, from $1,624 to $4,692 for a full-time in-state student, putting it in the middle of the pack.

For his part, Mesa State President Tim Foster considers the bricks and mortar a crest in the wave of building, noting the college experienced a period of significant growth in the 1960s, when, just as now, classroom and dorm space had been maxed out.

“I think we’re just on another one of those spurts,” Foster said last week while maneuvering through construction zones teeming with workers laying tile, pounding nails and lugging air conditioners onto roofs. “We’ve got to get ahead and stay ahead.”

But the extent of construction at Mesa State is unlike any this community has seen in the institution’s 85-year history.

Of the $183 million spent since 1997, $156 million worth of construction has been completed in the past four years. By the end of this year, the square footage of Mesa State’s buildings will have nearly doubled from 876,000 to more than 1.5 million since Foster became president in 2004.

In hitting those lofty numbers, Mesa State has shrugged off deep cuts in state funding of higher education and a recession that has paralyzed almost every other sector of the community.

Landlocked campus

“What this college looks like now, this whole transformation physically ... there is the sense that this is an institution that could very easily be matched up against universities throughout the country,” Schwenke said.

Although most of Mesa State’s growth has occurred in just the past few years, the roots of the college’s transformation trace back to the mid-1990s, when concerns arose that the landlocked campus may have to move out of the heart of the city. The city of Grand Junction and the community at-large responded in tandem, with the city pledging $2.5 million and civic leaders conducting fund drives to match the city’s contribution. Businesses were among some of the largest donors, Schwenke said.

The college used that money to buy more than $11 million worth of property to the west that has since become classrooms and dorms.

Mesa State’s makeover extends beyond rooftops. The makeup of the student population is evolving as well. The college has made large strides in shedding its image of 15 years ago as a glorified community college where students stayed just long enough to get their general education credits before transferring elsewhere. In its place is an institution that is attracting and retaining young men and women from a larger geographic area for its two master’s degree programs, new majors such as construction management and a criminal justice program angling to create the first forensic anthropology center in the West.

Out-of-state students continue to comprise a small part of the population — less than 10 percent. But the 655 students who came to Mesa State last fall from somewhere other than Colorado are 25 percent more than five years ago. Likewise, the 1,740 students from somewhere in Colorado other than Mesa, Delta, Montrose and Garfield counties are 22 percent more than in 2005.

New student center

Nick Lopez moved to Grand Junction from Longmont three years ago on a football scholarship after hearing friends who had graduated from Mesa State speak highly of the direction the college was headed.

“When I first came, it was kind of viewed as a transition-type school. It was a stopping ground before you go to CU or CSU,” said Lopez, who will serve as president of the college’s Associated Student Government when classes resume in August. “With new facilities, great staff and administrators, it’s definitely gone away from that.”

When Lopez and other students return to campus in three months, they’ll be greeted by the new 100,000-square-foot College Center and an expanded and remodeled Wubben Hall and Science Building.

The two-story College Center will be twice the size of its predecessor. The first floor will feature two lounges: a quiet one where students can relax by the fireplace on leather couches and a recreational one with movable walls and big-screen televisions. Students can climb one of four staircases to study in an upstairs room that seats 120 or head to an outdoor patio shaded by a canopy of trees.

The College Center is scheduled to be completed in November, although Foster is trying to push it up to September.

More projects

Contractors also are remodeling 100,000 square feet and adding 30,000 square feet to Wubben Hall and the Science Building. The greenhouse in the Science Building will double in size, and everything from the misting system to shades will be controlled by computer. Rather than looking and poking at a skeleton, nursing students can watch streaming video explaining medical ailments and procedures.

The building between the College Center and the Science Building, Medesy Hall, will be torn down this summer and replaced with a landscaped seating area. The Maverick Pavilion, which has housed the college bookstore and dining hall for the past year, will be relocated and converted into an indoor recreation area.

Construction won’t end this year. Houston Hall, built in 1940 and the second-oldest structure on campus, is slated for a $15 million renovation and expansion. And another residence hall will be built at the southwest corner of the campus. Both projects will begin this fall and should be completed by the end of next year.

The college now replaces all of its classroom computers within five years. Some are rotated out every two years. By the end of 2011, 90 percent of Mesa State classes will have 40 or fewer students, continuing the college’s commitment to closer professor-student interaction and intimate class sizes, Foster said.

“We’ll take a back seat to no one in the state in the quality of our undergraduate education,” he said.

No state funds used

Mesa State has continued to build despite the state’s ongoing budget crisis and the recession. Neither of the projects that will be completed this year, nor the two to be done next year, are receiving a dollar of state money. Bonds will cover the cost of the Wubben Hall and Science Center project and the new residence hall. Student fees will pay for the College Center, and the college’s Board of Trustees is expected to approve a 2 percent tuition hike to subsidize Houston Hall.

And while new home and commercial construction has ground to a halt in the area, St. Mary’s and Mesa State have forged ahead, continuing to funnel outside dollars into the community.

“That has an impact on everybody. Dollar importation is everything,” Schwenke said.

Colorado State University-Pueblo has followed a path similar to Mesa State’s, not only in terms of how much it has grown in the last half-decade but how it is subsidizing construction.

University enrollment has soared 25 percent in just four years. Over that same time, CSU-Pueblo has completed $120 million worth of projects. Only $14 million came from the state, according to Joanne Ballard, vice president for finance and administration.

“I think both institutions have been aggressive in pushing the envelope and trying not to have their success threatened by what’s going on with state funding,” Ballard said. “We’ve been very creative, and I think they (Mesa State) have been, too.”


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