BY STEVE GRAFF
More than six years after developing its “Vision 2025” master plan, the University of Guam is poised to start construction of its first round of new buildings in 2020, including the School of Engineering and the Student Success Center.
But first, it has a loan problem to solve.
It’s one year after UOG signed a $5.4 million contract with Bascon Corp. to build the new School of Engineering, and the project has yet to break ground, as the university works with its funder, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to secure new bridge funding.
Because UOG did not complete the project within five years of when the USDA loan was signed, in 2014, under federal rules, interim financing from a private firm must now secured to jumpstart the project. Toward the end, USDA would then reimburse what was borrowed.
“As the end five years came around, the project was finally ready to start, we had to tell them they couldn’t do anything,” Joseph Diego, area director of the USDA Rural Development Office for the Western Pacific, told the Journal. “We’re working with them simultaneously [on a] new application to reset the timeline for the loan….We are just about there.”
He added: “Granted, UOG did have some problems during that five years. I don’t think a lot of it is their fault. They had trouble getting contractors, and of course the skilled labor exemption that removed [foreign] contractors.”
The time lapse rule is not new, but in the past, when similarly, federally funded projects were coming up against the clock, extensions were often granted. However, the current administration appears to be cracking down.
“Yes…this administration is supporting more private sector financing,” said Diego, who has been with the USDA for 25 years. “If a lender is interested, we would like to get them in the mix. In past administrations, we used to allow for exceptions to be made. That’s not case now.”
David S. Okada, UOG’s chief planning officer and interim chief of staff, told the Journal, UOG is looking at several lenders in the states and locally, and are working closely with USDA through the process to secure the new loan.
“Joe Diego has been a terrific partner, trying to sort out all these new procedures and things,” Thomas W. Krise, president of UOG, told the Journal. “It’s administrative challenges that we are just trying to get through.”
The USDA is still connected to the project. “We remain committed to getting it funded one or way or another,” Diego said.
The project first gained momentum when USDA granted a $21.7 million loan to UOG to fund the construction of the School of Engineering and the Student Success Center. Both projects have been part of the UOG Vision 2025 master plan since it was first devised in 2013.
The building permit for the School of Engineering has been secured. And construction on both buildings is expected to begin in 2020, Krise said.
The School of Engineering will be constructed in front of the Agriculture & Life Sciences Building, while the Student Success Center, with an estimated cost of $18 million, will be located where the existing student center sits. It’s a part demolition/part expansion job. Reliable Contractors Inc serves as the contractor, Okada said.
While they wait for the new school to be built, engineering students utilize the classrooms and labs in the Agriculture & Life Sciences Building and other facilities. Currently, UOG has about 190 or so engineering students. But that number is expected to continue to grow, as UOG looks to elevate its engineering program. The school began offering a four-year bachelors of science in civil engineering in the fall 2019 semester, and is pursuing a separate accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
“It’s a tough, specialized accreditation that you have to have in order to have a first-class engineering school,” Krise said.
Other projects in the works include the Guam Cultural Repository Facility, a $12 million Department of Defense-funded project that will house artifacts — particularly artifacts that are unearthed by the development of the Marine base — and some exhibit space, Krise said. It will be managed by the Micronesian Area Research Center. Requests for proposals are currently out to contractors, Okada said.
“It’s a DoD project that is being hosted on campus, and we’re delighted to have that,” Krise said. “I think it’ll be a tremendous asset to have it at the university to get more real use out of it for research and education then if it were on a base.”
The repository, which is expected to be completed by Christmas 2021, Krise said, will be located along Dean’s Circle. That “neighborhood” is planned to have the most dramatic redevelopment on campus.
“What we would like to do in the distant future is replace all the houses in Dean’s Circle with classrooms and lab facilities…to make up a science quad,” Krise said. The oldest classrooms on campus date back to 1968.
UOG owns all but one of the homes along that road. If the property owner is interested in selling, Krise said UOG would be interested in buying. Right now, the house remains on the master plan. There’s also a privately-owned apartment complex further back behind Dean’s Circle the university is eyeing.
The new Dean’s Circle would also house the Triton Engagement Center, a mixed-use facility that would sit along the cliff line, south of the Agriculture and Life Sciences Building. UOG is also planning to relocate the Water Environmental Research Institute of the Western Pacific, or WERI, up to Dean’s Circle, giving the Marine Lab full use of the current facilities located down the hill from the main campus.
“Things that are planned in the nearer term to go where Dean Circle is, [including TEC], [are] a couple of projects that we put in requests for funding for different agencies, and if we get some money, then we’ll build them. If we don’t get the money, then we’ll just wait until we can find the money,” Krise said.
Much of the funding for campus projects has come from USDA, as well as GovGuam, which recently funded an expansion and upgrade of nursing classrooms and labs, but Krise said the university is beginning to look elsewhere more aggressively.
That includes U.S. Department of Interior monies.
“I met with [Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Doug Domenech] , when we both happened to be in the Virgin Islands,” Krise said. “He encouraged Guam and UOG in particular to apply for more DOI funds. We haven’t tasked those very much….We are sort of a mind, ‘Okay, let’s reset and get back into thinking of DOI money,’ so we are trying to diversify the sources of funds.”
Funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration are another possibility. Krise said.
“A couple of projects…have requests in for EDA funding, which would be new for us,” he said. “I think we have depended on the USDA; it’s kind of our main way, and so now we’re thinking about other sources, as well.”
Currently, the university is addressing a water drainage issue along the cliff line of Dean’s Circle that is costing more than $1 million to remedy, Krise said. Water has been pouring down onto a property below that needed to be properly redirected. That’s expected to be completed by December and is not affecting the School of Engineering building process.
Labor shortage has slowed construction movement in the past, but that’s not the case with the projects on the docket now, Krise said. The only hurdle is the loan for the engineering building — which Krise is eager to get started on, along with the other projects.
“We’re excited about all the plans. They have all been in the works for some time,” Krise said. “After the engineering building, the student success center, and the cultural repository, the next thing is the planning and thinking about the Triton Engagement Center.”
Krise said UOG also has plans to redo the fine arts theater, which is part of the master plan. However, the final product may look different, as ongoing conversations shift toward building a larger, more community-oriented fine arts center.
“We often host the Guam Symphony and the Guam Territorial band and community theater,” Krise said. “Maybe we could have even a stronger partnership and really share that facility…There’s talk about needing 500 or 600 seats. Because we don’t really have anything on Guam that fits that. So, there is some preliminary talk how we might think about a grander facility.”
As far as the total project estimated costs for the redevelopment, Krise acknowledged the rising costs of construction on the island, but said it’s difficult to assign a dollar amount, given the way these projects roll out. The 2013 “Vision 2025” indicated a cost of $318 million; however, the plan was revised and updated in 2017 with no figures.
“Some of the plans and figures are from six years ago, when we first sort of drew them up, we are going to have to update because it’s gotten more expensive in six years,” Krise said. “[And] partly, it’s because the funding can be in so many different ways. We don’t think of it as one big financial project. It’s all little individual projects.” mbj