University of Kentucky's president will inherit major building needs

New president will face challenge of finding funds for infrastructure

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 6, 2011 

  • UK's top building priorities

    • A new Gatton College of Business and Economics, $142.5 million, to be paid for with $117.5 in state bonds and $25 million in private funds.
    • A new College of Law, $123.1 million, including $108.1 million in state bonds and $15 million in private funds.
    • An additional medical research building, $205.9 million, to be funded by state bonds.
    • A new learning center/classroom building, $60 million.
    • New residence halls. Generally, universities use top-flight dorms as a way to attract and retain students. Three of UK's dormitories — Holmes, Jewell and Boyd — do not have air conditioning. UK's facilities plan calls for a new $30 million dorm on North Campus in 2013. In addition, an $8 million Wildcat Coal Lodge, which is intended largely for housing members of the basketball team, should be completed then.

On the University of Kentucky campus, the 100-year-old Reynolds Building is a mess.

The trim on the windows is flaking. An outside door is propped open with a two-by-four. Inside, it is as hot as an August day, even in late January. The walls are a collage of neglect, the stairs narrow and privacy in bathroom stalls provided by cloth curtains instead of doors.

It's not just that the former tobacco warehouse looks disgraceful; there is also a long list of safety concerns, including a need for better fire prevention and electrical wiring in the building where students go to class and have studio space.

Tom Harris, UK's vice president of external affairs, said last year that Reynolds is "probably the worst building in higher education in the state."

The Reynolds Building stands at the corner of Scott Street and South Broadway as a symbol of UK's crumbling infrastructure. It is also a reminder of the challenges the new UK president will face to keep up a sprawling campus of 16-million square feet in 365 buildings, including medical facilities and dormitories.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., who is retiring in June, has fought for updating campus buildings for years, arguing that UK was given the mandate to become a Top 20 research university without the money to fund even basic building needs.

UK officials agree that, in addition to the need to update Reynolds, the College of Law and the Gatton College of Business and Economics need to be renovated or rebuilt because of overcrowding. Both are linked to UK's Top 20 goal.

Building needs have been on the back burner at UK for years. A 2007 study done by Vanderweil Facility Advisors, a Boston-based company, said UK's facilities were in worse condition than those of any other university the company had evaluated in the previous five years.

Three-quarters of the 167 UK buildings it sized up needed remodeling — at a cost of nearly $1.3 billion.

As for the critically needed Reynolds update, a state-bonded $16.2 million renovation has been planned but is not currently funded. The project was taken out of last year's state budget, along with all university construction projects.

It's not simply a matter of safety and convenience. The National Association of Schools of Art & Design, which accredits art schools, is keeping tabs on the building's condition.

Ben Withers, chairman of the art department, has to report every six months to the group about improvements to the building. After being denied accreditation in 2006, partly because of the shape Reynolds was in, the school was accredited in 2008.

Said Victoria Gress, a UK junior and art education major: "I heard that the art library here is comparable to Harvard, but look at our building."

Building a backlog

It's not that UK hasn't tried to figure out a way to renovate the Reynolds Building. A 2008 deal with a developer to upgrade the area, possibly to include a small hotel, parking, housing, retail and restaurants, fell through because of the "downturn in the economy — particularly with respect to real estate," said UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities management, describes the building situation like this: "It was 'pay me now or pay me later,' and now is later."

A 2006 study at Ohio University observed that building maintenance is not the kind of thing that anybody gets excited about paying for: not the state, and certainly not the private givers who want their names on shiny new buildings.

Talk to other campus leaders, and building needs that aren't even on UK's official list pop up. Michael Tick, the dean of the College of Fine Arts, recently wrote a letter to patrons of UK's Singletary Center in a program for Porgy and Bess. He noted that 420 music majors are squeezing into 28 practice rooms, and "our vocal and instrumental students train in windowless rooms that are too small for grand pianos too old to repair."

Louisiana State University has, by comparison, 65 practice rooms in what Tick calls "a new state-of-the-art building."

The Singletary Center for the Arts, which includes a concert hall and museum, should also be renovated or replaced, Tick wrote.

While the 1,500-seat Singletary Center stays busy and has a capacity comparable to the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville, it was built as a concert hall with little backstage space to accommodate the sets and large casts of many productions.

Eastern Kentucky University will soon open a performing arts center in Richmond that will include a 2,000-seat theater.

Health care pays

Michael Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs, said that UK badly needs additional research space. In a new research building, a floor would be dedicated to the work of cancer specialist Mark Evers.

Kentucky is hardly alone in its struggle to provide needed academic buildings. In Michigan, nine public universities jockeyed for a piece of $610 million in state money available to expand much-needed science facilities.

Here, the state's two biggest universities vie for legislative approval — and scarce state dollars — to fulfill their missions.

The legislature has to approve all university construction, even those buildings that it doesn't fund. Some university projects, such as a dormitory or the new Chandler Hospital, have their own revenue streams.

Both the University of Louisville and UK have invested heavily in health care infrastructure in the last two years.

Since 2009, U of L has opened a $44 million Center for Predictive Medicine; a Clinical and Translational Research Building, which cost $143 million; and a health science parking garage for $30.7 million.

The only non-medical construction at U of L during that time: Ville Grill dining facility, which cost $3.8 million.

U of L asked for funding for a $75 million classroom building during the 2010 legislative session, but, like other state universities, was turned down for construction funding.

During the same period, UK has had a similar focus on health care-related buildings: a new $135 million College of Pharmacy opened in 2009, a $175 million emergency room in 2010, and $37 million in surgical facilities and a $6 million patient care facility in 2011.

In addition to the lack of state funds, another problem is that some say the legislature's two-year budget cycle prevents universities from taking advantage of building opportunities.

Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that do not allow universities to use bonds that are not backed by the state for the construction of campus facilities.

State Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, has long been the champion of such a bill, which would make the university, not the state, responsible for the debt. He has argued that the longer the state waits to build such projects, the more expensive they will be.

Three times, Damron's bill has failed. He said he hopes that in this legislative session it doesn't stall in the Senate.

Such a bill would free universities from pleading with the legislature simply to keep their buildings habitable, he said.

The legislation is limited to bonds for projects that have a dedicated revenue stream to service the debt, such as residence halls or a student center.

UK's top priorities — the Reynolds Building, College of Law and College of Business — could not use such bonds, Blanton said, because their debt service would come from general funds. UK is also raising private money to help pay for the new law and business buildings.

Battle for dollars

Among the multitude of attributes UK's search committee wants in a new president is the ability to bring new ideas on fund-raising for building projects.

Improving UK's buildings is "one of the top challenges we have," said Britt Brockman, chairman of UK's board of trustees.

"I believe most legislators on both sides of the aisle would give us the money if it existed," Brockman said.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who oversees the House budget subcommittee on higher education, said there has been a backlog of "hundreds of millions" of dollars in construction projects at the state's public universities. However, some of those projects are wishes and not needs, Simpson said.

Regardless, Simpson said he supports Damron's measure to help give universities a quicker, simpler way to fund some of their buildings. Damron insisted that the Reynolds Building is a prime example of why Kentucky universities need the freedom to better administer their own building programs.

"I'm surprised the fire department hasn't shut it down for being a fire hazard," he said.

A moving target

Sixty-six percent of UK buildings were built more than 30 years ago, and 30 percent of instructional space is more than 40 years old, according to VFA, the company that conducted a 2007 facilities study at UK.

Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities management, said VFA's estimates for how much the university needs to spend may be inaccurate, because by the time the university gets to the projects, the buildings may need to be torn down and replaced because classroom and lab space will be outmoded.

"In the near term ... we're going to have to fund (building needs) at a level of $30-$35 million annually," Wiseman said.

"We are not yet in a crisis state," he said, adding that the number of building problems is certainly growing.

Presidential issues

Are there stories or issues you think we should pursue in this series? Email us at swalsh@herald-leader.com, lblackford@herald-leader.com or ctruman@herald-leader.com.

Herald-Leader staff writer Beth Musgrave contributed to this article.

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