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Marquette goes it alone on building project

Paul Snyder
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With no help from the state in sight, Marquette University might be unable to meet its anticipated summer start date for construction of a $100 million engineering building.

“We’re committed to continue fundraising,” said Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil, “but as for a groundbreaking date, at this point we don’t have that.”

The state Building Commission on Wednesday opted not to vote on a $10 million request from the university in the 2009-11 capital budget, effectively killing any chances for state money Marquette might have had.

Despite the presence of Marquette president, the Rev. Robert Wild, and vocal support from three state lawmakers, state Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, said commission members made a last-minute decision not to vote on the university’s Discovery Learning Complex.

“We found out this morning we didn’t have the votes we needed,” said Plale after Wednesday’s meeting. “Sometimes that happens. It’s called politics.”

The university issued a statement Wednesday night expressing disappointment over the decision, but promising to continue its capital campaign to make the project a reality. According to the statement, the $10 million in state money would have been matched by $25 million in private donations to finance the project’s first phase.

Pfeil said the university has more than $60 million in cash and pledges for the building, and might consider doing the project in phases. But she said the university still needs more cash in hand to make a commitment to start work.

“We have the property and we have the designs,” she said. “We’re absolutely committed to making this happen.”

A delayed starting date would come as a disappointment to the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee Inc., said Chief Executive Mike Fabishak.

AGC Greater Milwaukee and its education research foundation committed $75,000 to the building project and also set up two scholarship programs with the university. Fabishak said it is likely the organization will discuss another donation.

Although the commission did not even entertain a motion to vote, several members spoke about the project, including Plale, who apologized for the political process killing the state’s involvement.

“This could have been work for a city that desperately needs jobs, and it would’ve spun out engineers to boot,” he said.

Marquette originally sought federal stimulus money for the project after its capital campaign slowed amid the recession, Plale said. When federal rules on the stimulus spending barred private universities from accessing the money, Marquette turned to the state.

Gov. Jim Doyle said the state received $460 million worth of requests for stimulus money from private universities. He feared singling out one to receive state money would open the floodgates.

“We better be very careful,” he said. “It could be a way that chokes off funding to state schools.”

Several UW System schools also had building requests denied for a variety of reasons, despite support from some commission members.

But Plale argued the issue was bigger than public versus private schools.

“Marquette and (the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) cross-train their engineers, and I know they work with Milwaukee School of Engineering, too,” he said. “This is not an either/or situation.”

State Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield and state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, who opposed several other building requests Wednesday, voiced support for the Marquette project.

“The No. 1 thing I’m hearing from businesses is that it’s increasingly difficult to get engineers from other places,” Kanavas said. “This would’ve been a game-changer. If we don’t grow, things that happen under this dome have no effect.”

And the money goes to …

The state Building Commission met Wednesday to discuss 2009-11 capital budget requests. The following were among the afternoon’s hot-button issues:

  • Charter Street Heating Plant: $250 million was allotted for renovation of the Charter Street Heating Plant on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to shift from coal-fired energy to natural gas and renewable fuels. The Sierra Club in 2007 sued the state over the plant, saying it operated illegally for years on upgrades made without required permits. The state agreed, as part of a settlement in November 2007, to look at ways to move away from coal.
  • University of Wisconsin System: The state’s financial woes and sliding project schedules led to denial of money for eight building projects throughout the UW System.

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