Murky details delay ISU’s $5 million building request

From the Associated Press

By John Miller
Associated Press
March 9, 2007

BOISE – Idaho State University asked legislative budget writers Thursday for money to match a $5 million donation from an undisclosed foundation to buy part of a warehouse where the Pocatello-based school wants to house health-science classes it now offers elsewhere around Boise.

Some Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members knew nothing of ISU’s proposal until Wednesday and said they fear too much remains secret. As a result, discussions were postponed until next week.

The plan calls for spending $17.5 million to buy and renovate a third of a 320,000-square-foot warehouse in Meridian, Idaho, from the Meridian School District. The district bought it last year from Jabil Circuit, which shut down in 2002.

Besides the $5 million each from the state and the foundation, ISU would sell bonds to raise the remaining $7.5 million. The money would turn the university’s share of the warehouse into space for programs including nursing, dental hygiene and EMT training.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Kent Kunz, the ISU lobbyist in Boise. “The Meridian School District has made us a gracious offer to go into a partnership with them.”

Proponents said this shouldn’t be mistaken with plans for a southwestern Idaho community college such as one now being pushed by city and business leaders in Boise, Meridian and Nampa. Rather, ISU’s Meridian location would be a site where college students and 11th- and 12th-graders could take advantage of in-demand medical-field training from a four-year university at a single location.

Kunz said the private donation is contingent upon ISU buying the building. He declined to name the donor. “I will let them make their announcement,” he said.

The Idaho state Board of Education held an executive session in late 2006 and again Feb. 22 on the plan, Kunz said.

Public boards can hold closed sessions to discuss buying “an interest in real property,” according to Idaho’s open-meeting law.

When asked if the impending $5 million donation was the subject of the private meetings, Jeff Shinn, the board’s fiscal officer, said: “When a board talks about purchasing real property, they talk about the funding sources that are going to be used to purchase that real property.”

Some JFAC members said ISU’s last-minute proposal, accompanied by a mysterious donor and scant details hammered out in closed meetings, made them skittish, at least in part because they remember the consequences of the University of Idaho’s failed University Place project in 2002.

UI’s $136 million, three-building plan to expand in the state capital on growing Boise State University’s turf left the Moscow school and its foundation millions in debt.

“There’s obviously some secrecy,” said Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise and a JFAC member, of ISU’s proposal. “I first heard about it last night. If it’s such a great idea … why did they wait until the end of the session to introduce it?”

Henbest added: “They said (about University Place) ‘Trust me, it’s a great project.’ It just feels like that, absent any details.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, also said he wanted to hear more about the plan.

“Five million bucks is pretty significant,” Eskridge said.

“We’re all a little jumpy, because of (University Place).”

From the Associated Press

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