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Election | Education

Measure 69 Offers Expansion Option For Oregon Universities

Oregon university leaders are hoping it’ll get easier for them to expand, under a measure before voters this month.

Measure 69 would allow public universities and community colleges to use the same kind of low-cost bonds to buy existing buildings that they can currently use to build new ones.

Rob Manning reports on a hoped-for campus in the city of Wilsonville.

There’s no such thing as the Oregon Institute of Technology’s Wilsonville campus. University officials imagine it being headquartered right here, in a building once occupied by a high-tech company.

Imagination is already familiar here.

The cable television show, “Leverage” used this building to shoot a number of scenes this week. There was a fake bank, executive office, even an exercise studio.

Chris Maples: “Now, they’re tearing it all down. It’s really quite interesting, I had no idea they were doing that. It’s really pretty cool.”

Rob Manning: “Can we go in?”

Chris Maples: “Yeah, as far as I know.”

That’s Chris Maples, the president of the Oregon Institute of Technology, the man who hopes to own this building.

His dream is to consolidate four Portland-area OIT campuses into one academic center in Wilsonville.

Maples says OIT would start offering classes here in 2012, and buy the building outright by 2013. Unlike a set for a TV show, it’d mean some permanent changes.

Chris Maples: “Probably the biggest challenge in a building like this is it’s always been set up for high-tech sector, and there’s not much in the way of wet lab support.”

In other words, the office building isn’t  set up for the chemistry experiments OIT faculty expect to conduct.

There is one perhaps bigger challenge, though: paying for the building. Right now, Oregon universities can’t use low-cost bonds to buy existing buildings. 

OIT could build something new, or try to find other ways to buy this building, like a large donation.  But Maples says neither is a good option.

Low-cost bonds that would be made available by the passage of Measure 69 reduce the building’s cost signficiantly. And Maples says that might be the difference between OIT Wilsonville being a dream, or reality.

Chris Maples: “That $2 million makes a huge difference. And the key for us is to be able to use the 11-G bonding to purchase an existing structure. I mean if we were to build a building like this from scratch, it’d be at least twice this much, and that doesn’t include the 500 parking spaces and the six acres it’s on.”

Maples says in the end, OIT Wilsonville would have the potential to be larger than the school’s four other Portland-area campuses combined, with between 1200 and 2000 students. 

Chris Maples: “We more than double our square footage in this building, compared to adding up all the other campuses. Again, it increases the presence, and see that we’re here, and a lot of people drive by on Interstate 5, and having a sign that says ‘Oregon Institute of Technology’ would be good.”

Measure 69 came to the ballot out of the Oregon legislature, with strong, but not unanimous support.

Republican senator from Roseburg, Jeff Kruse, appreciated the idea, but he opposes the measure, because he’s afraid it’ll lead universities to compete with the private sector.

He wanted safeguards to keep administrators from sub-leasing buildings.

Jeff Kruse: “And quite honestly, if the universities are behaving appropriately, I think it could work very well. But if you allow the opportunity for mischief, more often than not, mischief will occur.”

Measure 69 won’t result in immediate bond sales. It allows legislators and university leaders to identify projects and use low-cost bonds to fund them, if they choose to.

President Chris Maples says he’s confident OIT Wilsonville would be at the top of such a project list. But Senator Kruse says that lawmakers are looking at steep budget cuts next session and may be reluctant to take out more debt.

That could upset the timing for Maples’ Wilsonville plan, and could keep it a dream a bit longer.