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Sunday, 21 December 2014 22:00

Higher Education Outlook: Colleges add infrastructure to meet needs of changing economy

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As West Michigan’s economy continues to improve and evolve, that’s led to a host of infrastructure investments at colleges and universities across the region.

As presidents from a variety of higher education institutions look ahead to 2015, they aim to double-down on core competencies — namely developing a talented workforce — while also seeking to innovate in a changing economy.

“I think developing new professionals ready to ensure our state’s future is now and will continue to be our focus,” said John Dunn, president of Western Michigan University. “(W)e’re fortunate in Michigan to have a supportive business community and an autonomous set of public universities that each want to help diversify the state’s economy and promote economic development.”

Institutions around the region are implementing a variety of new curricula as a means of standing out in the higher education market. In some cases, that’s leading to new building projects.

At Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the school has started construction on its new $46 million health and wellness campus in collaboration with Bronson Healthcare. The project aims to promote healthy food and to identify ways to grow food in an urban environment, said KVCC president Marilyn Schlack.

“It goes beyond the farm-to-table concept because what is really being explored is food as medicine, and I think that’s been underestimated,” Schlack said. “(We also want to show) that growing food in an urban setting can be a viable source of jobs and (can help) eliminate the high cost of foods being brought in from outside.”

The campus, located in downtown Kalamazoo on 13.3 acres of land donated by Bronson, is expected to be “fully operational” by January 2016, but Schlack expects some classes to begin by spring.

KVCC isn’t alone in expanding in Southwest Michigan as nearby WMU has two construction projects underway. A new 750-person residence hall known as Western Heights and the restoration of East Hall are both scheduled for completion in 2015.

Additionally, after WMU’s Business Technology and Research (BTR) Park reached capacity this year, the university began looking at investment options to build out needed infrastructure at an adjacent property, Dunn said.

Grand Valley State University also has ambitious expansion plans heading into the new year. In December, the university announced a land swap deal with Spectrum Health along Michigan Street in Grand Rapids in which GVSU will acquire one of the health system’s parking lots where it plans to expand the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.

That deal followed an $18 million land purchase in the Belknap neighborhood, just north of downtown, to further expand the university’s health and science capabilities.

On its Allendale campus, the university is currently constructing a new $42 million, 151,000-square-foot science laboratory building, featuring nine classrooms and 15 teaching laboratories. The project is expected to be completed in fall of 2015.

Attached to the science building is the 42,000-square-foot Laker Marketplace, featuring a bookstore, copy center and food and retail spaces. The marketplace is expected to be completed in May.

Grand Rapids-based Aquinas College is also considering the feasibility of a new science building, among other facilities projects, including a new chapel, said President Juan Olivarez.

He added the Catholic liberal arts college plans to expand on its sustainable business degrees to roll out an “economicology” program it created with a $2.5 million gift from the Wege Foundation.

“We need to be relevant in the times and we also want to encourage our faculty and staff to look outside the box and look to the future to look at how we develop new programs and how we deliver particular courses and programs,” Olivarez said.

Meanwhile, Muskegon Community College plans to expand in downtown Muskegon after it closed on a deal to purchase the former Muskegon Chronicle building, as MiBiz previously reported. MCC has set early 2016 as the goal for at least partial occupancy of the site, President Dale Nesbary said.

The building boom at the region’s higher educational institutions is occurring at the same time more students are enrolling in online courses. But the executives reached for this report said they expected bricks-and-mortar infrastructure to be required for the long term.

“Online education is not for everyone,” KVCC’s Schlack said. “Across the country, the online programs have a high failure rate. (KVCC) is spending more time looking at a blended approach. … It’s still difficult to teach without a classroom.”

Read 3707 times Last modified on Sunday, 21 December 2014 22:14

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