Fort Lewis College has been issuing a steady plea to the Colorado Legislature for many years now: Help refurbish Berndt Hall to make it a relevant science and engineering center for today’s students. Though two of the project’s three phases have been completed, the remaining phase is significant and long overdue as years of recession made funding the project unfeasible. Now, though, it simply has not risen to the top of the Joint Budget Committee’s list, despite resounding support from other legislators for the project. It is an unwarranted and inexplicable sting.
Since at least 2010, FLC officials have been asking for a budgetary nod to complete a remodel of Berndt Hall’s engineering, physics and geosciences wing – a $20 million endeavor that is crucial to the college’s educational offerings. As Steve Schwartz, FLC’s vice president of finance and administration, said, “The building is a bottleneck for our engineering program. We could be educating more kids in our engineering program if we had this building.”
In making the years-long case, FLC has enlisted the support of the Capital Development Committee, which is tasked with prioritizing projects for state funding. By ignoring FLC’s well-documented need, as well as the Capital Development Committee’s recommendation, the Joint Budget Committee has made a significant misstep that could easily give rise to criticism that Colorado lawmakers too often fail to see beyond the Front Range.
It may or may not be a coincidence that the committee members are each and all Front Range residents, representing Denver, Adams, Jefferson, Arapahoe and El Paso counties. Interestingly, the committee approved project funding for the library on the Auraria campus in downtown Denver and a performing-arts project at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The campuses are in the districts of JBC members. Not so, Fort Lewis College.
If the Berndt Hall request were either frivolous or Johnny-come-lately in nature, the committee’s overlooking it would be somewhat understandable. After all, it represents almost 10 percent of the $213 million the JBC approved for state construction projects and therefore is not chump change. But the project would culminate a long-term effort to refurbish the aging Berndt Hall, thereby giving a significant boost to the college’s science and engineering programs. The state has a big stake in that effort and has invested in it during the course of the multiphase project; the capital construction fund was the primary source of the $17.9 million spent to remodel and expand the building’s biology wing, which was completed in 2010, and the Legislature funded planning for this last phase. It should now fund the project’s completion.
Whether the JBC’s snub was indeed a case of “I-25 corridor myopia” – a Front Range-specific varietal of tunnel vision – or simply an overall diss to colleges, Auraria and UCCS notwithstanding, the result is the same. Of course, there are always more mouths at the budget trough than there is slop to go around, but the FLC Berndt Hall project is a long-established need with wide-ranging support. The JBC was flat wrong to overlook it. The Capital Development Committee does not come to its recommendations hastily and the JBC ought to heed its call for needed investment in Fort Lewis College’s science and engineering building.