While possible cuts to state higher education funding loom, Western Kentucky University’s infrastructure and facility needs continue to grow.
University officials recently submitted a list of envisioned construction projects and renovations to the state for authorization. Most of the projects were included in Gov. Matt Bevin’s 2016-18 executive budget, with one exception being a new business college.
Bryan Russell, the university’s chief facilities officer, said listing a project doesn’t necessarily mean the university will pursue it, but the university does need the state’s permission before it can move forward with the projects. Russell said the projects won’t move forward unless WKU can pay for them itself. The state government could help pay for the projects by selling bonds to fund capital projects across Kentucky.
However, that seems unlikely.
“Right now I know the new governor is trying to solve a debt problem and he does not want to incur anymore debt,” Russell said.
Additionally, the projects may not need their fully authorized amount of money. A project authorized for $5 million could spend a much lower amount like $250,000, for example.
The listed projects cover a wide range and represent the growing demands on WKU’s facilities and infrastructure.
Projects include renovating a total of 17,000 square feet for office space at the university’s Center for Research and Development and renovating Gordon Wilson Hall to address handicap accessibility and improve energy use.
Other renovations include upgrading the Garrett Conference Center, which houses a WKU dining facility, and renovating the aging Tate Page Hall for “mold mitigation and mold damage removal.” Maintaining Tate Page Hall past its useful life continues to cost time and money, Russell said.
“Those are funds we would rather not be spending,” he said, adding that without maintenance the building’s indoor air quality would degrade “to a point where nobody could utilize this building.”
The eventual plan is to build a new business college and renovate Grise Hall before tearing Tate Page Hall down for green space, he said.
The Department of Art is seeking a downtown location to create and sell work, which a new satellite location of the WKU Store could help with.
Gary Meszaros, WKU’s assistant vice president of Business and Auxiliary Services, said the new WKU Store location would be next to 6-4-3 Sports Bar and feature an art gallery along with a Starbucks.
Along with conventional WKU merchandise, student artwork and photography would be available for sale through the gallery. Meszaros said the entire project is ahead of schedule, would cost roughly $600,000 and be complete by July this year. On a separate note, the Nashville Road location of the WKU Store would close.
Another listed project would upgrade infrastructure to handle escalating bandwidth demands “resulting from increased enrollment, large data transfers, streaming media and the addition of campus-wide wireless capability.”
When it comes to student Internet use, Russell said student needs have “definitely changed” with the rise of online content streaming, such as Netflix. Despite a growth in student streaming, Russell said WKU’s Information Technology Division was able to adjust by purchasing a new piece of equipment. Network security is also an ongoing challenge, he said.
“It’s not just looking at Netflix stuff,” said Gordon Johnson, WKU’s chief information technology officer. “It’s the fact that we’ve got more devices that need these bandwidth intensive updates.”
Johnson said bandwidth use is increasing as students bring more devices to school. Where students used to have one main device they now have an average of three, and those devices can range from TVs, gaming consoles and even wireless lightbulbs, which can be controlled by smartphones and adjust their color.
Not only does the university contend with a lot of network users, Johnson said, those users can flood the network when they all download device updates simultaneously. A lack of state funding for information technology upgrades would mean they come at a slower pace, Johnson said.
Although many desired projects haven’t been started, Russell said there is progress on current capital projects.
A project for construction and renovation for the Ogden College of Science and Engineering has been released to a general contractor and it has started mobilizing on the site, Russell said. Part of that project is to construct a new science building called Ogden Hall in the place of the Thompson Complex’s North Wing.
Russell said workers are starting work on the project, and work should be done by the fall of 2017. The entire project would cost $48 million and include upgrades to the Hardin Planetarium and renovation to the Thompson Complex.
Meanwhile, a project to replace WKU’s baseball field and improve site drainage has gone out to bid and is privately funded.
“We hope to start that project first week of June and have it done by end of August this year 2016,” he said.
Additionally, the second phase of a federally funded, two-phase project to develop a community bikeway will go out for bid soon. The addition would extend the bikeway from WKU through downtown to the Barren River, and Russell anticipates the project’s completion this summer. Although the project has been underway for several years, Russell said the project changing hands may have added to the time of completion for the project.
A recent project to convert a classroom in Grise Hall to a laboratory for sales techniques and training has recently been completed. Lukas Forbes, a professor of marketing and sales, directs the Center for Professional Selling.
“We’ve had limited facilities until we’ve built this room,” he said.
The room features three smaller areas allowing space to practice sales techniques in different situations, Forbes said. The conversion will help WKU’s rapidly growing sales programs, and help develop relationships with area businesses, he said.