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CdA education corridor stalls

Coeur d’Alene’s dream of an education corridor is on hold as the state postponed until September a $1.3 million lease guaranteeing the University of Idaho’s presence in North Idaho for at least 99 years.

The state Board of Education, which continues its meeting in Idaho Falls today, deferred its decision on the lease that would allow UI to use and improve the current Harbor Center Building between the shore of the Spokane River and Northwest Boulevard. The agreement also would give the university the option of constructing a building on 2.5 acres just north of the North Idaho College campus that are part of the shuttered DeArmond Mill.

The university eventually wants to build a $24 million facility on one of the two sites along the river as part of the educational corridor – a regional hub that would let local students earn degrees from Idaho’s colleges and universities without having to move.

Board Secretary Sue Thilo, of Coeur d’Alene, submitted the only vote against the postponement.

“There were a couple board members who said they just didn’t have their arms around it yet,” said Mark Browning, the board’s communications director. “But they were careful to say it’s not indicative of work UI had done to prepare. There was just so much information, they didn’t feel like they had a good handle on it.”

The board members who expressed the most concerns were President Milford Terrell, of Boise, and Blake Hall, of Idaho Falls, Browning said. Vice President Paul Agidius, of Moscow, also voted for postponement.

There also was discussion, but no formal motion, about Coeur d’Alene and NIC providing more information on the finances, master plan and whether the property would provide substantially more benefit as a higher education center than as private property on the tax rolls. Browning said that may information might come in September.

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem said the master plan and an economic feasibility study will be released in July, giving the board time to study it before the September meeting.

“That will make their decision easier,” she said.

The Coeur d’Alene City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved entering the lease with UI.

Some local residents, including state Reps. Frank Henderson and Bob Nonini, both Post Falls Republicans, say the city and university are moving too fast and haven’t looked at other options such as building on the current NIC campus or using property the UI owns in Post Falls.

Some supporters suggest that Henderson, Nonini and others are trying to kill the corridor plan.

Henderson and Nonini said that other than running a full-page commentary in the Coeur d’Alene Press and talking to board member Hall, they didn’t lobby against the project. Henderson and Nonini maintain they support the corridor concept but worry that NIC hasn’t proved it won’t exhaust its financial resources on the corridor and not fully fund professional-technical education such as carpentry, auto shop and medical technicians.

Both lawmakers reject the accusation that they are trying to torpedo the plan.

Coeur d’Alene owns the seven-acre Harbor Center property and building. Since 2002, the university has leased Harbor Center so it could offer courses in North Idaho along with Lewis-Clark State College, Idaho State University and Boise State University.

But that agreement wasn’t long-term enough to justify expanding or improving the facility. The university has looked at other locations in Kootenai County, including Post Falls, but concluded that the site near NIC was best and fit into the concept of an educational corridor.

This isn’t the first time the state board has disappointed education corridor supporters.

In January 2007, the board stunned corridor supporters when it rejected a motion to support the project. NIC trustees claimed they didn’t even know the board had planned to discuss the corridor at the meetings.

At the time, board member Thilo, who supports the corridor, said she thought it wasn’t the corridor concept itself but the $10 million needed to buy the land as well as the timing of the proposal that drew opposition.

NIC plans to dip into its forgone taxes, pull money from the college’s cash reserves and increase tuition to come up with a $2.4 million down payment on the 17-acre DeArmond site, 2.5 acres of which the UI would lease.

The purchase of the mill is the linchpin in creating the corridor.

Developer Marshall Chesrown has an option to buy the mill property and is offering to sell it to the college for $10 million.

NIC officials consider the mill offer a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and believe investment in higher education will do more to boost the economy and create jobs than just bolstering the tax base.

Collecting the forgone taxes translates to a 32 percent annual increase in the amount of property taxes paid to NIC – about $33 a year from a home with $200,000 taxable value. NIC proposes taking $1.5 million from its cash reserves along with nearly $400,000 from the college’s operating budget – a figure that includes funds from a tuition and fees increase and money from a projected increase in enrollment.

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