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News >  Idaho

UI-Sandpoint gets closer

Sandpoint could be a college town by this time in 2009.

Coldwater Creek founder Dennis Pence, through his foundation, has expanded the amount he’s willing to spend to see that happen – from $26 million to at least $36 million, according to the agreement approved by the Idaho State Board of Education on Thursday night.

The board, meeting in Twin Falls, backed the plan to sell 77 acres owned by the University of Idaho just north of downtown Sandpoint to Pence’s Wild Rose Foundation for $6.25 million. Most of that money would go into a trust for educational programs at the site, and the foundation would spend at least $30 million to build the first four buildings, which would then be given to the UI, according to the agreement.

“This is unique in that we’re really able to create a whole campus from the very beginning,” said Larry Branen, the UI’s associate vice president for North Idaho.

If all goes as planned, classes would start at the Sandpoint Center in fall 2009. A variety of offerings would be available, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary programs focusing on the liberal arts, natural resources and food science, Branen said. Other programs would include the UI’s executive MBA program, already available in Sandpoint, as well as offerings from North Idaho College.

The scope of the commitment from Wild Rose, as well as the targeted approach, make it a unique situation for the UI, and one that’s rare in higher education, Branen said. It often takes years for universities to establish branch campuses, and their growth can be slow. In this case, the UI will have four new buildings and a campus environment already in place when classes begin.

And it’s expected to come at relatively little cost to the UI. Proceeds from the land sale will create a foundation to provide $500,000 a year for faculty and programs; the UI expects to spend another $150,000 in the first couple of years of operation. But the amount of the UI’s commitment could vary, depending on state funding and enrollments at the campus.

“Essentially, it’s a turnkey operation,” Branen said. “But we have to turn on the lights and bring people into it.”

Attempts to reach Pence on Thursday were unsuccessful. He is chairman and CEO of Coldwater Creek, the Sandpoint-based clothing operation that has seen booming growth in recent years.

Business Week listed it last year as one of 100 “Hot Growth Companies.”

The nonprofit Wild Rose Foundation was formed in 2005, with Pence, Karen Pence and Rosalind Holland listed as foundation directors with the Idaho secretary of state’s office.

The foundation approached the UI with the proposal and initially proposed spending at least $20 million, in addition to buying the land. Branen said discussions between Wild Rose and the UI led to a doubling of space for classes and research, driving up the amount committed by the foundation.

Many in Idaho are wary of big plans for branch campuses, given the difficult times that arose from the UI’s grand plans for a new operation in Boise several years ago. When those plans began to unravel in 2002, the UI was left with a big budget hole, and its former financial vice president wound up convicted of misusing public funds.

A large part of the problem in that case was that UI officials had big plans but no solid long-term financing as it began spending millions on design. In this case, the money’s identified and the UI doesn’t have any liability should Wild Rose fall short on its commitment, Branen said.

“I think we all learned a lot from Boise,” he said. “This is something where the funding is up front. We know where it’s coming from.”

The campus would be located on Sand Creek north of downtown, on the north portion of the 77-acre parcel.

Wild Rose will offer the southern portion of the parcel to the Lake Pend Oreille School District for the construction of a high school, if the district can come up with funding.

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