Cheney Free Press -

By JOHN McCALLUM
Editor 

Workforce catalysts

Science center, Spokane building could spur CSTEM program growth at EWU, with possible future business opportunities for Cheney

 

March 15, 2018

Avista Corporation

An artist rendering of Avista's 150,000-square-foot Catalyst Building - which also shows the new pedestrian bridge spanning railroad tracks in Spokane's University District - is shown above. Eastern Washington Univeristy plans to move three CSTEM programs to the building once completed in 2020.

Lighting struck twice for Eastern Washington University in January and February when it comes to its growth and presence in the region. That lightning will institute a number of changes to the university, and possibly to the city it calls home.

In fact, that lightning may prove to be the "catalyst" for positive changes in Cheney as a whole.

A two-fer

The first strike came in late January when the state Legislature finally passed its $4.2 billion 2017-2019 capital budget - a measure held from passage last summer due to disagreements between the House and Senate on fixes to a water rights court decision known as Hirst. The good news for Eastern was the budget contained its requested $67 million for construction of the Interdisciplinary Science Center on the Cheney campus next to the current science building.

But a year ago it was unclear to university officials if that funding would materialize. About that time, university President Dr. Mary Cullinan said they were approached by Avista Chief Executive Officer Scott Morris with a vision for a 5.5-acre lot the utility owned across the railroad tracks and near the southern terminus of a pedestrian overpass being constructed linking it to the University District's Riverpoint campus on the north side.

Eastern currently has about 2,500 students taking classes in two departments located at Riverpoint. Morris's vision was the construction of a building on the south side that would link technology and education, and Eastern officials saw a lot of benefit to the university in joining with Avista.

"Sometimes private industry can do more than the public sector, and quicker," Cullinan said. "This seemed like an opportunity that something would get done in a timely fashion and I wasn't sure that would happen in Cheney (with the ISC)."

So on Feb. 6, lightning struck again as Avista announced the construction of the five-story, $50 million Catalyst Building, with Eastern as the anchor tenant, occupying around 57,000 square feet of the 150,000 square foot building when it opens in 2020.

What got some people's attention in this partnership was the announced intentions by the university to move 40-50 faculty members and close to 1,000 students from its Cheney campus to Catalyst. The numbers represent the relocation of three entire programs within the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: electrical engineering, networking science and cyber security.

University officials say most of these students will be upper division majors and grad students in those fields. And while some might envision an exodus of students living in Cheney, Cullinan said a number of those students already live in Spokane and commute to Eastern's main campus, and vice versa.

"I take the bus (Spokane Transit Authority) to Spokane often," she said. "I know there's a lot of movement back and forth."

Innovation hub(s)

Others see Eastern's move to Catalyst as a change of direction for the university. Cullinan sees it more as a continuation of a process begun in the early 1980s by former EWU President Dr. H. George Fredrickson.

Fredrickson instituted the purchase of the former Farm Credit Bank in downtown Spokane and turned it into the Higher Education Center. The HEC, which was controversial at the time, served as a Spokane location for EWU classes and also housed several programs that moved there from Cheney.

"All we have done (with Catalyst) is grow that today by moving two of our colleges to the Riverpoint campus," Cullinan said.

The move could also lead to accelerated growth in the university's two engineering programs, potentially putting Eastern near the center of two "innovation hubs."

CSTEM Dean Dr. David Bowman said there are many businesses in Spokane and Spokane Valley operating in the three program areas moving to Spokane. The presence of these programs at Catalyst helps Eastern be "closer to the center of gravity of that industry."

"The programs here in Cheney are really feeding a lot of their workers," Bowman added. "It (Catalyst) engages the university as the driver of the workforce. These businesses want us (EWU) nearby."

The move also gives the other CSTEM programs room to grow. Bowman said technology degree enrollment at Eastern is growing astronomically, and the college "is really bursting at the seams right now."

The physical limitations of the nearly 15-year-old Computer Science and Engineering Building are inhibiting that growth. Bowman said moving programs to Catalyst presents the opportunity to grow other fields such as mechanical engineering, mechanical technology and robotics.

"The ones remaining behind are some of our fastest growing degrees," he added.

Bowman said currently there are over 300 mechanical engineering majors and over 100 mechanical technology majors. Market analysis done by the university indicates that with more space on the Cheney campus, those numbers could likely double.

"We're not going to be able to handle that, but that's a good thing," Bowman said.

Additionally, many of the industries employing graduates in the mechanical field are located on the West Plains, mainly around Airway Heights but also in Cheney.

"Our center of mass for these industries, we can still be close to here in Cheney," Bowman said. "It really is the perfect storm of opportunity."

It also presents opportunities for Eastern to continue to excel in what university Provost Dr. Scott Gordon calls "advanced manufacturing," essentially a combination of all the programs in CSTEM.

"It's very high tech. It's looking at robotics, sensors and more," Gordon said. "We have that expertise in providing this and creating a modern workforce."

At the top of the roller coaster

Add to this equation the Interdisciplinary Science Center. Both the Cheney and Spokane buildings fall under Bowman's jurisdiction, with groundbreaking on the ISC set for this fall and construction estimated to take 24-28 months to complete. The former seismologist from Southern California said most deans are lucky to oversee construction of one such building in their lifetimes.

"Building two at the same time - it's mind-boggling," he said.

Bowman said the process on both buildings has been slow, but in different ways. While the ISC was hung up in the Legislature over water rights, Eastern officials discussions with Avista about Catalyst had to be kept quiet lest they impact funding for ISC.

"It was a little like being on a rollercoaster, slowly climbing to the top and suddenly seeing what's about to come," Bowman said. "Now, we've been given a canvas to paint big."

Part of that painting big is not only developing and growing existing science and engineering programs, but the potential to marry two of them - engineering and geology - into one: civil engineering. Bowman said the university has a very good geology program that, coupled with an engineering program, could lead to a civil engineering program with regional demand.

Bowman said they are in the preliminary stages of establishing such a program; stages that are more exploratory than operational. One of the questions needing answering is how to ensure Easterns' program is serving a needed niche in the field and not duplicating what other universities offer.

But the likelihood of the program becoming reality exists, and Gordon said there is a lot of need, especially given the push at the federal level to implement what is estimated at over $1 trillion in needed infrastructure work.

"Civil engineers are at the heart of what will help improve the infrastructure throughout the country," Gordon said. "That workforce is what we're here to develop."

Winning numbers

For Cheney, benefits from construction of the ISC will be shown in tangible numbers. The benefits from additional programs and Eastern as an innovation hub on the West Plains might be a little harder to pin down, but the possibility exists.

In the short term, the city will see an economic shot in the arm from sales tax once construction of the ISC begins. Sales tax is not necessarily reported by project, and some individual records are protected by state law, so Cheney Finance Director Cindy Niemeier said the best way to "estimate" the expected sales tax is to look at construction cost estimates on building permits.

"The expected sales tax estimate is likely high due to the entire valuation not being subject to sales tax," Niemeier said in a Feb. 20 email. "These numbers do not include valuation of plumbing and mechanical work, fire alarm or fire sprinkler systems, which are all permitted separately."

Niemeier provided building permit cost estimates on six projects taking place at Eastern over the past 15 years, including the recent renovation of Patterson Hall and construction of the snyamncut residence hall in 2012. Those projects totaled $91 million, with Patterson and snyamncut together at $52.3 million.

Cheney receives 85 percent of 1 percent of the 8.8 percent sales tax imposed, with the state, county and STA collecting the rest. That percentage of the $91 million in building permit estimations brought in a total of $773,500, with Patterson and snyamncut at $440,670.

The building permit for the ISC was pending as of Feb. 16, with its construction estimate at $50.3 million. Using the tax formula, that alone could bring in $427,550 to the city's general fund.

What will benefit Cheney in the long term is once completed, the ISC will add to the overall assessed valuation of the university and the city, as long as the data is reported correctly by the county Assessor's Office. In 2015, city officials discovered during the course of negotiating the fire services contract with Eastern that some construction at the university had not been reported since 2010, causing the contract formula to be applied improperly and resulting in a loss of revenue.

Once the error was corrected, Cheney's overall assessed value rose and has continued each year, expected to top $600 million in 2018. Assessed valuation is used to compute revenues from the city's property tax and special levies, such as the EMS and public service levies.

Intellectual collisions

But while monetary benefits from construction at Eastern are nice, Cheney officials have been in discussions they hope will provide a more lasting impact to the city in the form of possible new businesses. Innovate Cheney is a collaboration between the city, Eastern and local businesses to figure out how all three can work together to capitalize on resources to spur economic growth locally.

"It's taking what's special about Cheney and the West Plains and using it to augment and innovate," Gordon said. "We want to look and see where there's an intellectual collision of ideas."

Cheney City Administrator Mark Schuller said a group of eight individuals has been meeting actively for about a year to create a concept similar to "Start Up Spokane," an entrepreneur assistance program launched by Greater Spokane Incorporated. Schuller said Innovate Cheney is a similar concept, and they hope to take it a step further by providing working space to assist in bringing ideas to fruition.

Schuller sees the construction of Catalyst and the ISC as enhancing the possibilities for such a collaboration, noting ideas developed in those facilities, if properly cultivated, could become start up companies in Cheney, which has empty spaces for workshops and land in the Commerce and Industrial Park for building. The next steps for Innovate Cheney are putting together a business plan that will help the group seek grant funding.

"The worst thing you could do is start this thing without a goal in mind and a plan to get there," Schuller said.

Looking at the state-of-the art lab facility from the northwest.

Schuller doesn't view the departure of EWU programs to Spokane as a detriment to the university or to the Innovate Cheney plans. Creating more space to develop ideas and a workforce would be beneficial for both locations.

"I think this has a chance to be something unique and special for Cheney," he added.

Gordon takes a similar view. The development of two state-of-the-art buildings, both lab-centered homes to EWU CSTEM programs will serve to increase the university's impact in those fields and the region.

And as for moving 1,000 students, Gordon believes new and expanded CSTEM programs attracting more enrollment will make those numbers "a blip on the radar."

"I'd say, 'stay tuned,'" Gordon said. "We'll likely see more students on campus in Cheney."

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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