Western Michigan University plans to revamp the entire southern portion of its Kalamazoo campus in the next five years as part of a public-private partnership.
The plan includes new student housing, a new student center and dining facility, retail space and other new buildings, with the goal of strengthening the university’s recruitment and retention and providing an identity to that part of campus that fits with the 21st century.
Universities across Michigan are struggling with enrollment and tightening public funding, and some colleges see public-private partnerships as a chance to tackle both problems while also expanding infrastructure.
“Essentially, it’s really helping us to do something we otherwise couldn’t do in certain respects, and it brings their professional resources to the table and improves our way of thinking around these types of projects,” said Kara Wood, associate vice president for community partnerships at WMU.
The university selected Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development Co., a real estate, financing, ownership and management company, to enter into a partnership to design, build, finance, operate and maintain some or all of the Hilltop Village project. Gilbane also is serving as construction manager.
The project is WMU’s first public-private partnership.
“This is a transformative initiative, one which will further strengthen the bond between WMU and the greater Kalamazoo community while advancing WMU’s objectives for student recruitment, advancement and success,” Gilbane Vice President John Keegan said in a statement.
The first phase of Hilltop Village is underway with the $65 million Arcadia Flats, a six-story, 200-unit residential facility that will house more than 300 students. It is scheduled to open in 2020. A student center and dining facility opens in 2021.
Beyond that, Hilltop Village could contain retail, office, research, hotel or entertainment spaces, among others. The final iteration of the project has not yet been decided, Wood said.
Public-private partnerships can be a way for universities to get what they need more quickly instead of traditionally financing a project, said Jim Conner, vice president of business development at Triangle Associates Inc., a general contractor based in Walker.
“Universities don’t all have access to cash, nor are they able to borrow that much money. This is a way for them to get what they need, but the developers are going to be the ones that make some of that money on the front end and transition the buildings to the university on the back end of the deal,” Conner said. “It’ll help them get there faster.”
Triangle is working on Arcadia Flats at WMU, and has been busy with several other projects in higher education this year. Conner expects that trend to continue in 2020.
“We have maybe 20 opportunities we’re chasing, a couple hundred million dollars of work,” he said. “I think (universities) are just trying to position themselves to be the best, most attractive campus.”
Many schools are recognizing their infrastructure needs to be updated, Conner added. As developers meet the needs of students with off-campus housing and amenities, universities need to compete. Enrollment has decreased for some universities across Michigan, and having the most modern infrastructure can help schools attract students.
“Universities are all fighting for a smaller pool of students,” Conner said.
For years, universities have pursued public-private partnerships for various developments, although the arrangements are underscored at times when public funds are strained for other things like K-12 education or fixing roads, said Vennie Gore, vice president of auxiliary enterprises at Michigan State University.
MSU’s new Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building will be the university’s first public-private partnership in Grand Rapids. These types of partnerships have been used to accomplish many developments across the region, including the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, Van Andel Arena, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the DeVos Place Convention Center.
MSU’s College of Human Medicine formed the public-private partnership with Health Innovation Partners LLC, which is a joint venture involving Chicago-based MB Real Estate, Chicago-based Walsh Construction/Walsh Investors and Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. Inc.
The building, which will be owned by the developers who will then lease space to MSU, will allow the university to commercialize its research, Gore said. This might not be possible without help from the private sector.
“More than likely what would happen is we wouldn’t have private companies in there that would necessarily be commercializing research from the university,” Gore said. “In these days of really tight funding on the public side, it allows for the commercialization of the product, but it also allows the private sector to bring their creativity and expertise in building and development too.”
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