Construction boom whittles down university maintenance list

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- University of Alaska Fairbanks Provost Paul Reichardt looks out his office window toward the Fountain of Flags plaza, behind the statue of founder Charles Bunnell, where flower beds and flowing water should be dazzling summer visitors.

Instead, behind chain link fence and warning tape, a shanty town of prefabricated buildings has sprung up.

''It looks like an ATCO garden,'' he said.

Reichardt couldn't be happier.

The trailers are home to a small army of construction workers spending three years renovating UAF buildings. The 6,500-student school is in the midst of a $55 million renovation boom that will put nearly a quarter of the campus under construction and address pressing needs on the school's deferred maintenance list.

Kathleen Schedler, facilities services director, said campus officials aim to turn buildings from the slide rule era into facilities that can be used by the personal computer generation.

The Fairbanks campus went through a building surge starting in 1960, the year after statehood, when William Wood was hired as UA president. By the time he retired in 1973, the student population had quadrupled to more than 3,600 and UAF had added nearly 30 buildings.

The structures are getting old. Today, the campus has more than a half-billion dollars worth of bricks and glass but some classrooms are so antiquated they've been turned into storage rooms.

''We just had a lot of buildings that were at or beyond the useful aspect of their lives,'' Reichardt said.

''Technology has changed. How we present our classes has changed. Our students have changed,'' Schedler said.

The problem is not unique to Alaska. A 50-state survey updated in 1995 by The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers determined that campuses had $26.5 billion in repair needs, according to association director of communications Steve Glazner.

Les Swick, interim associate director for facilities at Texas A&M University, said higher education across the country went through a building boom in the 1960s and '70s.

''Why the surprise? We should have known it was going to happen to us,'' Swick said of repair needs. His campus is in the last year of a five-year, $24 million deferred maintenance program. He updates a scheduled renovation plan every October.

Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, whose district includes UAF, said area legislators had sought repair money for more than a decade.

Opponents delayed appropriations by accusing university officials of mismanaging maintenance money. In 1986, when oil prices dropped by two-thirds and Gov. Bill Sheffield ordered budget cuts throughout state government, UA officials reallocated up to a million dollars from maintenance funds to pay teachers, Davies said.

''They had no other option. They didn't want to fire professors midyear,'' he said, but repair needs fell behind.

''It's akin to burning the furniture to keep the building warm,'' Davies said.

Fairbanks legislators finally made an issue of buildings in disrepair, which was a two-edge sword, Davies said. It raised awareness but drove students away.

Lawmakers took a major step by appropriating $25 million for upgrading dormitories in the mid-'90s, Davies said. He credits UA President Mark Hamilton, appointed in 1998, with pushing lawmakers to approve more renovation money.

Three projects take up most of the repair funds.

The William Elmhirst Duckering Building, dedicated in 1964, will be home to all engineering programs and should be ready next month after $13 million in repairs that began when construction workers replaced students and professors at the end of the spring 2000 semester.

Bright new electrical wiring hidden behind ceiling tiles will deliver any level of conductivity required by the computers of faculty members and students.

''At their desk top, they can have whatever service they need,'' Schedler said.

A third-floor lecture hall that violated building codes was moved to the first floor. Heating and ventilation systems have been rehabilitated, and a new elevator installed. More than $750,000 in new equipment will be added.

''We're not just renovating the building,'' Reichardt said. ''We're trying to bring up to speed the equipment available to students.''

The Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, the state's largest, is in the early stages of an $18 million renovation. Completed in 1970, the building needs a new heating and ventilation system and upgrades that will help it meet seismic and other safety codes. Workers are cutting the concrete walls to install windows on the fifth and sixth floors.

Work is just beginning on the Brooks Memorial Building, dedicated in 1952 with state-of-the-art mining research equipment in 10 classrooms and 10 science laboratories.

Code violations, lack of handicap accessibility and antiquated heating, ventilation and electrical systems turned the building's top floors into storage units for the last five years.

When completed next summer, the $5.6 million renovation will house the Alaska Native Studies Department, the Alaska Native Language Center and other rural student programs.

UAF administrators acknowledge that faculty and students will be inconvenienced by the construction turmoil. The library has moved 250-300 tons of books and other materials out of the way of construction workers, said director Paul McCarthy. Parking spaces, already in short supply near classrooms, have been gobbled up for staging areas.

''It sure does cause some disruption,'' Reichardt said, but once people see the results, ''You come to the conclusion it's well worth it.''

''We're close to where we need to be,'' Davies said, but UAF remains in a catch-up mode. ''There's probably another $50 million that needs to be done.''

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