UH-West Oahu campus awaits green light from governor
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
The state Legislature's decision to set aside $48 million for construction of the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu campus means the project could begin by August if it receives the final go-ahead from Gov. Linda Lingle.
University officials say the appropriation by the Legislature caps more than three decades of working toward a four-year baccalaureate campus on the Leeward Coast, and will help to fill a higher education void that has existed since the population began rapidly shifting to West O'ahu in the 1990s.
"The project is ready to go. It will be the culmination of 34-plus years of people dreaming about this campus out on the 'Ewa plains. It's a big deal," said UH-West O'ahu Chancellor Gene Awakuni.
University officials say they see lawmakers' support for construction of the West O'ahu campus as recognition that higher education is a great need on the Leeward Coast.
"The need has never been greater than it is right now," said Linda Johnsrud, UH vice president of academic planning and policy. "Based on population growth alone, it is clear where the most need for increased access for post-secondary education is."
The money also means the university is likely to meet a December 2011 deadline to begin construction and avoid seeing the 500 acres donated by the former Campbell Estate, now James Campbell Co., revert to the original owner.
Should the governor agree to float the $48 million general obligation bond and release the money, construction of UH-West O'ahu could begin by August, meaning that the first phase of the university's campus with space for some 2,750 students could be ready by November of next year, Awakuni said.
$100 MILLION FIRST PHASE
The new campus would essentially double UH-West O'ahu's student capacity.
The money appropriated by the Legislature is enough for construction of two classroom buildings. But Awakuni said the university plans to sell 15 acres of its land in Kapolei for $15 million. That money would be used to pay debt service financing on a $50 million bond, which would be used to build three additional buildings.
Coupled with $8 million left over from planning and design of the campus, the university would spend more than $100 million to build the entire first phase of UH-West O'ahu — an administration building, a campus center, a library and classroom buildings.
UH-West O'ahu currently is in portable buildings on the Leeward Community College campus with an enrollment of 1,300 students.
With a new physical campus in Kapolei, Awakuni said the university will be able to accommodate many more students who are interested in the school's unique offerings of practical degrees not available at UH-Mānoa, such as bachelor degrees in culinary arts management, respiratory health care, occupational therapy, physical therapy and early childhood education.
In other words, West O'ahu would be better equiped to develop the state's workforce, Awakuni said.
"These are majors that we will be the only ones offering," he said. "These are applied programs that Mānoa, because of its designation as a research institution, simply doesn't provide."
HANABUSA KEY SUPPORTER
The UH-West O'ahu campus has been decades in the making and attempts to begin actual construction of the campus have been met with stalls and stops since 2005.
A private developer, Hunt Cos., was expected to help build the campus in exchange for development rights to up to 200 acres of the 500-acre site owned by the state. Most of the noncampus land was to be used for homes and commercial development. But that agreement fell apart in 2008, leaving UH-West O'ahu looking to the state to help finance the project.
After an unsuccessful attempt to get $48 million in construction money last session, Awakuni said the university enlisted the help of key lawmakers this session. One such lawmaker was Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, Awakuni said.
Hanabusa said lawmakers had made solving the state's budget deficit and public education the two priorities for the legislative session, from which UH-West O'ahu benefited.
"When that public-private partnership fell apart with Hunt, it became a matter of policy decision as to what were we going to do with West O'ahu. Are we going to be committed to a second campus in Kapolei," Hanabusa said. "For myself, there was no question."
West O'ahu has already spent some $35 million appropriated in 2007 to lay infrastructure for the project. Coupled with the North-South Road, Hanabusa said lawmakers saw the UH-West O'ahu project as "shovel ready" and were apt to support projects that were ready to begin as soon as possible.
Hanabusa said she believes the presence of a university campus on the Leeward Coast would improve workforce development and boost private industry. In the short term, the construction jobs would stimulate the economy. She said she also believes having a university on the coast will be good for student achievement in the area.
"Just having that campus there will give students something to strive for. The presence of a campus in one's neighborhood makes a difference.
"It's going to be an incentive," she said.
'EWA PLAINS' FAST GROWTH
UH vice president Johnsrud led a 2006 research project called the Second Decade Project, which analyzed population and workforce data from across the state to develop a strategic plan for the growth and outreach of Hawai'i's public university system.
The project outcome was clear, Johnsrud said. The Leeward Coast has the state's highest need for post-secondary education.
According to project data, in the period from 2000 to 2020, the population on the 'Ewa plains was expected to increase by 106 percent. In comparison, the second-highest population growth in the state was predicted to be West Hawai'i at 51 percent.
"It has been a top priority to address West O'ahu because the population growth is there. At this point in time for the Legislature to make this investment is significant," Johnsrud said.