University Seeks to Finish Years Old Project

Cole Wharton

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The future of the FirstMerit Bank Building, now titled University Tower Building, remains uncertain despite previous efforts to use the structure. 

The building, which originally served as an office space for FirstMerit Bank, was purchased for $6 million by UM-Flint on March 31, 2016. This was done in conjunction with the acquisition of the Riverfront Center Residence Hall by former Chancellor Susan E. Borrego in an attempt to bring more space to campus. 

The day after UM-Flint bought the building, Borrego told UM-Flint Now, “As an anchor institution for the City of Flint, we are vested partners contributing to the life, vibrancy, and economic development of our community.” But while Riverfront was almost immediately put to use, UTB fell victim to the lack of funds necessary to make it operable. 

Vice Chancellor of Business and Finance Michael J.Hague has been overseeing the UTB project since his appointment in 2017. While the building has sat empty since its purchase and despite enrollment dropping by almost 12 percent since 2014, Hague feels the addition of the 143,280 square feet of space to campus is necessary. 

“ … We do still need the space. Even though enrollment has gone down, the number of classes hasn’t really reduced much,” said Hague. “And one of our biggest needs is for space for the White building, because those two programs (The College of Health Sciences and The School of Nursing) are expanding.”

Student Government president and computer science major, Nickxit Bhardwaj, believes that UM-Flint’s apparent sedentary approach to UTB has been undesirable, but is receptive to the idea of having more departments in the downtown area. 

“I think a lot more can be done … I think having infrastructure right in the middle of downtown could really be centralized to students who are more over [by] White building just so that they have easy access to more resources in downtown,” said Bhardwaj. 

In an interview with Department of Public Safety Chief Raymond Hall, he expressed how moving to UTB could be of great value to the downtown area.

“ … For the function of the agency and the benefit of the campus and the greater community, we’re looking at the North Tower, where we would have a physical presence in the downtown area,” said Hall. “Much easier to find by our students and a benefit to the greater community would be the greater presence of public safety presence in the downtown area. So, that could spur development and so forth is what we’re told by the experts in that field.”

Others believe the purchase of UTB was a poor decision from the start, and that the future utilization of the building is not what UM-Flint should be prioritizing. 

“It’s unfortunate to have acquired a problem building when the focus should have been on growing enrollment and academic programs,” said Department of Music Chair Lois Alexander, Ph.D. “Now UM-Flint is faced with buildings in need of thousands of dollars in deferred maintenance. The decision to acquire the former First Merit was a serious lapse of judgment.”

Alexis Edmons, a senior Spanish linguistics major, believes moving departments from other buildings to UTB may not be in UM-Flint’s best interest.

“If you try and move part of the university over there, I feel like that would be a negative risk for those departments as far as keeping them central to the school since Riverfront is kind of off campus,” said Edmons. 

According to the Fiscal Year 2020 capital outlay request document by UM-Flint, various programs are predicted to expand from 2016-2026. For example, nurse practitioners are anticipating a 27.3 percent growth, as well as nursing instructors and professors anticipating a 11.8 percent growth. These predictions are driving the want for space for these programs in the future.

DPS is also predicted to grow up to 11.8 percent by 2026. Landing them a spot in the 2nd floor and basement of the building, this would be a move from DPS’s current headquarters, the Hubbard Building. Despite the move, the Hubbard Building will continue to be home for DPS, with UTB’s floors being an expansion for more space.

Genesee Early College, a dual-enrollment program offered to college-prep highschool students, is also expected to receive new space in UTB. Moving GEC to UTB will free up room in other buildings for more enrollment in fields related to healthcare, according to the Fiscal Year 2020 document.

The project is estimated to cost $30 million, with UM-Flint putting forward $11 million of its own money to help fund the project. The rest of the funds rely on a process called capital outlay. Through this process, state funded organizations like universities can submit plans for a project they wish to receive additional funds for. The latest product of UM-Flint’s participation in capital outlay is the Murchie Science Building expansion.

“ … We have to put in money and they put in money, and it comes from the state,” said Hague. “So every year the state budget decides whether or not they’re going to fund.”

UM-Flint’s UTB utilization spurred the most interest during the capital outlay process, with Hague saying the university even scored the highest out of all the other projects presented. 

According to the Fiscal Year 2020 Capital Outlay document from the Michigan Legislature, projects are evaluated and scored by Michigan’s State Budget Office. Using 14 criteria, the SBO determines if projects will be funded by capital outlay or not. Some of the criteria evaluated and scored can range from, ‘impact on job creation’, ‘clarity of project purpose and scope’ as well as ‘life and safety deficiencies’. 

“We were ranked the number one … We were the number one scored project in the process. So in prior years what’s happened was, as the state’s doing the budget, they’ll look at how much money they want to put into capital appropriations and take so many projects off the list and fund those,” said Hague.

But the capital outlay funds did not get to UM-Flint on time to formally start UTB construction. 

“In prior years what’s happened was, as the state’s doing the budget, they’ll look at how much money they want to put into capital appropriations and take so many projects off the list and fund those,” Hague said. “So, that’s what we were hoping was gonna happen by September 30 when next year’s budget was due on the first [of October] … they’re still going back and forth, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to fund any projects.”

Despite this setback, Hague remains optimistic due to his previous experience with budgets, and how from time to time the budget is adjusted even past a due date.

“We weren’t really waiting for someone to write a check, we were waiting to see if the state, … the whole legislature — was going to fund any capital appropriations projects this year. And if they did, then we were still just hoping that ours would be funded because we were scored number one,” said Hague. “At this point, it doesn’t look like they funded any.” 

Hague is hopeful that UTB’s renovations could start at any time, due to the projects scoring and prior history of capital outlay funding projects after the deadline. 

As it stands, if UM-Flint receives the $19.8 million from capital outlay, the estimated date of completion will be August 2022. Currently however, the future of UTB remains undecided.

This story originally appeared on the Nov. 11 print issue of The Michigan Times