USD building project clears hurdle

A proposed expansion of the Muenster University Center on the USD campus would add 31,000 square feet of additional dining space. It now awaits approval from the state Board of Regents, which is scheduled to discuss the addition next week. (Photo by David Lias)

By Randy Dockendorf

A building committee approved Monday an $11.6 million expansion of the University of South Dakota's student center, sending the project to the full Board of Regents next week in Vermillion.

Only three years old, the Muenster University Center (MUC) cannot keep up with campus growth, said Cathy Wagner, USD director of planning and construction.

"(The MUC) was built for what we had at the time. Now, we have more freshmen," she said during Monday's telephonic meeting. "If you are here (at the center) near noon, you know what we have ever day."

USD enrollment has returned above the 10,000-student mark, reaching school record levels. The university's enrollment stands at 10,284 this fall, an increase of 314 or 3.15 percent.

The MUC expansion would add 31,000 square feet of additional dining space. The seating capacity will triple, from the current 450 seats to 1,200. In addition, USD is working on agreements with national food franchises.

Rising student usage, as well as growing enrollment, is fueling the need for expanded space, said President Jim Abbott. He noted the growing popularity among students for eating and studying in the link connecting the MUC and I.D. Weeks Library.

 "If it gets kids to stay there and (remain) connected to the library and work there, that's good," Abbott said. "Other dining halls in the past, they go in only for the meal and then it's not used for the rest of the time. That's not the case here (with the MUC), and it's a good thing."

Regent Jim Hansen said he was aware of the cramped facilities. "I'm not arguing it — the project is needed. There's no debate there," he said.

However, USD officials found themselves defending the project's cost of $11.6 million — $9.75 million for construction and the rest for other services.

"How did you come to the conclusion for what you did?" one committee member asked. "You had different estimates from the architect and construction manager. Who determines what is more right than the other one, if it hasn't gone to bid yet?"

Abbott and Wagner explained the large difference in initial cost estimates among the parties. USD officials worked with the architect, construction manager and an independent consultant to formulate a final cost figure.

By using alternate features, nearly $3 million was trimmed from the high estimate, Wagner said. USD officials moved away from "high-end" building stone and kitchen equipment, and they also looked at the amount of glass used for the building.

However, the design and square footage hasn't changed, Wagner said. The impact on utility cost is estimated to be $64,832 for the first fiscal year of operation, according to the USD website.  Operational costs have not changed since the Facility Program Plan.

USD officials noted, if bids come out lower than expected, the university can use the difference any way it wants on this project.

Besides the cost issues, USD officials were also questioned about the delay in construction, slated to begin last summer. The site remains fenced off until work commences, Abbott said.

One committee member alluded to the lengthy delays in building the current MUC. Because of the delays, some USD students never had the usage of a full student union during four years on the Vermillion campus.

Despite the delays, Wagner expressed optimism at beginning construction immediately should the full Board of Regents approve the project next week. The issue would likely be considered at an Oct. 10 session, the regents said.

"We would like to start digging ground this next week, if (the regents) approve this," Wagner said.

Construction crews could still make important progress on footings and underground utility work beginning in October, one party noted during Monday's call.

During the call, Abbott was asked whether current litigation involving the MUC expansion would tie up the project. A Massachusetts architecture firm has sued a Sioux Falls firm, charging its copyrighted designs were used by the Sioux Falls firm for the USD project.

Abbott said he hadn't had the opportunity to talk with counsel before Monday's committee meeting. He was also reluctant to discuss legal matters during a telephonic call with media participants.

However, he expressed optimism in moving forward with the MUC expansion despite any outstanding legal issues.

USD officials were also asked efforts to bring additional franchises to campus.

Sheila Gestring, the university's vice president for finance, said the initial effort has focused on three major franchises.

"We are talking with Aramark about bringing in Qdoba and Einstein bagels. For the most part, we are having some initial conversations with Chick-fil-A," she said. "Those three (franchises) are the ones that students have chosen."

One party during Monday's call raised the question about bringing Chick-fil-A to campus. The franchise has become controversial because of its owner's opposition to gay marriage.

Abbott noted discussions surrounding Chick-fil-A have been held on the USD campus. One forum drew about 50 people, who were evenly divided on the issue, he said.

South Dakota State University has likewise debated whether Chick-fil-A should come to the Brookings campus. In response to a question on Monday's call, Abbott said SDSU "is further down the road" in its final decision on the franchise.

During Monday's call, Wagner described the features of the MUC expansion. The project would "engulf" the computer link and make it part of the enlarged facility.

The project is an expansion to the south of the existing Muenster University Center as well as modifications within the facility and proposed modifications at the North Complex. Plans call for an open, airy facility with large window space.

"Our intent is to have as much glass as possible for the facility," Wagner said.

Abbott emphasized the university is not renovating the commons dining hall. "It would take nearly $7 million to renovate it, and it made no sense to us, no sense whatever," he said.

At the conclusion of Monday's committee meeting, the project received a unanimous go-ahead from Hansen, Abbott, State Engineer Kristi Honeywell and Board of Regents executive director Jack Warner.

However, USD officials were warned they can expect questions about the project during next week's regents meeting in Vermillion. USD officials should be ready to defend the project.

"(The regents) will raise concerns about the budget, so you need to be prepared," one party advised on the call.

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