Story last updated at 9:25 PM on Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Campus expansion stimulates Town Square debate


The city of Homer has been kicking around the idea of a new city hall for years, but the drive to design and build a new civic complex in the town center didn't accelerate until last summer when the Kachemak Bay Campus got the last little push to make a 15-year dream happen: a $2.5 million grant from the Alaska Legislature to purchase and renovate old city hall and combine its campus in one space at the corner of Kachemak Way and Pioneer Avenue.

Although the city got a $2 million legislative grant a year earlier to help build a new city hall, with the college now ready to buy, the project became practical. What's sometimes lost in the debate over whether voters should approve the city borrowing up to $8 million to build a new city hall and town square is the college's role in the project. See story, page 11, for more on the bond question.

From the perspective of Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage, moving into old city hall isn't a blue-sky dream fulfilled, but the culmination of a three-phase project to expand the Kachemak Bay Campus UAA and Kenai Peninsula College's Homer branch. Discussions to expand into old city hall didn't start last summer, but began in 2003. The Homer City Council in 2006 passed a resolution to support selling old city hall to the college.

"The train already left the station," said KBC Director Carol Swartz.

The first phase of the expansion started in 2004, when Jay-Brant General Contractors began remodeling the old 7,200-square-foot building, once Homer's post office, and adding 9,300-square-feet. That phase created more classrooms and offices, the large common area and a small teaching auditorium. The second phase remodeled more offices and created a 1,000-square-foot art studio.

During all the expansion, the college has been holding some classes and staffing five professors upstairs in the old Homer Intermediate School, a building shared with the Homer Boys and Girls Club. The small college of 400-500 students splits its campus into two buildings at either end of Pioneer Avenue.

When or if, depending on what happens with the bond the Kachemak Bay Campus moves into old city hall, the two buildings will not only be physically connected by hallways and a common grounds, the college will have a stronger academic appearance in downtown Homer.

"It's a real footprint, it's a real presence in an evolving university district of Pioneer (Avenue)," Swartz said. "By having more of a presence that's consolidated in one area of the community, it really promotes more economic development and opportunities for businesses and cottage industries to grow up and evolve around the campus."

Ironically, at one time KBC considered building a new campus on a 4.7-acre lot behind Alice's Champagne Palace on the north edge of Town Center. The college bought the lot, but couldn't find the estimated $6 million which kept increasing back in the 1990s to construct a new campus. In 2003, after a state bond allocated $3 million for an expansion of the east campus, the university sold the land for $271,000 to a willing buyer the city. Discussions were reinvigorated to sell old city hall to the college and for a new city hall to be built elsewhere. The 2006 resolution passed by the Homer City Council gave the college the right of first refusal to buy old city hall. Discussions are now in progress about the detail and timing of the sale.

The college doesn't know exactly the layout of what would go where in the renovated old city hall. That will depend on the suggestions of architects and engineers. Swartz identified some uses:

* A new library.

The current library barely a room big enough for several shelves of books and a few tables would hopefully triple in size from its current 500 square feet, Swartz said.

* A Learning Resource Center for group or individual tutoring "a noisy study space," Swartz called it;

* Four new classrooms, including a physical science classroom and a nursing skills lab;

* Combined office space for the college's seven professors;

* More shared office space for the 30-40 part-time or adjunct instructors;

* Office space for the Adult Basic Education program;

* A second computer lab.

Consolidating the campuses will connect the college not just physically, but virtually in the computer and Internet world. The east campus has wireless computer networks; the west campus doesn't. New learning technologies are computer and Web based, and not being connected creates problems for instructions, particularly for the distance education classes Homer offers, Swartz said.

"We really can't do a lot of the instruction technology because we're split, because we're so far away from each other," she said.

Through the university-wide distance education program, students anywhere in Alaska can enroll and take classes offered by any campus, including Homer. That allows Homer adjunct and full-time instructors to teach classes to students statewide. Because of work and family schedules and the high cost of commuting from Anchor Point or far East End Road, many local students take distance education classes, too.

A second computer lab would allow students to work on projects outside of class time. With one computer lab, sometimes a class is being taught when a student needs to use computers.

Classes held at the west campus usually aren't scheduled during Boys and Girls Club hours. The shared stairway carries noise upstairs, Swartz said. If a class must be held when the Boys and Girls Club is open, classes are held as far away from noise as possible.

Most important, Swartz said, bringing the campuses together and having enough space for all its programs makes KBC more efficient and increases the quality of its instruction.

"We would expand our ability to promote student success," she said.

Swartz sees the timing of Town Square and the KBC expansion as being synchronistic: The city and college both need to expand, and building a new city hall and selling the old city hall to the college fit the needs of both public facilities.

"There were all these things that were identified that are now coming to fruition," she said.

If the bond authorization passes, and the city stays on its construction plan of moving into a new city hall in November 2009, the college would start its renovation after the city moves out. City Manager Walt Wrede said the city and university are discussing the details of how that would happen, including the purchase price. The city would sell old city hall to the college soon, and stay rent free until at least November 2009, he said.

Swartz doesn't say "if," though. She says "when." The consolidation of campuses will be the fulfillment of a long-time dream.

"We see this as a culmination of a 15-year, very concise, very professional plan," she said.

"We need to look like a university. We don't right now, but we're getting there."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at