September 12, 2005 in Idaho

Idaho Water Center seen as bright spot

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Amid the ongoing lawsuits and investigations surrounding University Place, officials with the University of Idaho say a positive development often is overlooked.

The Idaho Water Center – the only remaining piece of the original four-building plan – is open and tenants are moving in.

The center, in downtown Boise, combines the UI’s programs in Boise, the state Department of Water Resources, a Forest Service research office and offices of CH2M Hill, one of the biggest engineering firms in the country.

UI says the center will be fully occupied this fall.

The center came in well under its $48 million budget after a second project coordinator was selected. More than $6 million has been returned to the UI’s fund-raising foundation, which was $25 million in the hole after the original plan collapsed.

University of Idaho President Tim White chafes when he hears University Place described in news reports as a “failed project,” largely because of the way the Water Center has come together.

“I push back on that,” White said. “It was imagined to be this great big project and now it’s much smaller, but it is a wonderful building. … I can’t get myself to the word ‘failed.’ ”

The financing and bidding process surrounding the Water Center has drawn criticism that influential UI alums such as Gov. Dirk Kempthorne bypassed bidding rules to match up the UI and the Department of Water Resources.

Critics also noted that the building represents an ongoing maintenance and operations cost to the UI of several million dollars a year.

Jack Lemley, a UI alum whose company took over as project manager for the Water Center, is bluntly critical of the process surrounding the development.

But he says the Water Center is fulfilling the goal of a kind of one-stop shopping center for related water enterprises, a central idea behind the project all along.

Hal Anderson, administrator of planning and technical services for the Department of Water Resources, said the various tenants of the Water Center have begun looking for ways to collaborate and share information.

“It’s a really nice facility,” he said. “We’re very, very happy to be here.”

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