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Pogemiller, Bliss check out projects at BSU that await state financing

Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the state’s Office of Higher Education, left, and Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington.

BEMIDJI -- As Minnesota lawmakers get ready to work on a large-scale bonding bill this spring, leaders at Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College on Tuesday presented their hoped-for projects to a Bemidji-area legislator and one of the state’s top higher education officials.

Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the state’s Office of Higher Education, toured the university’s Hagg-Sauer Hall, which BSU administrators want to tear down as early as November 2018 and replace with a smaller “academic learning center” by fall 2020. They plan to pay for that project with money from a bonding bill proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this year, which would borrow $1.5 billion to pay for the Hagg-Sauer replacement and an array of similar projects across the state.

But Pogemiller doesn’t have jurisdiction over the hoped-for funding for those projects -- state legislators do. Pogemiller, then, visited as a representative of the governor, staff at his office said, and his appearance at BSU was a show of support for the multi-million dollar projects there.

A tour attendee who will have a say over the bonding bill is Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington.  He said he’d like to see the state borrow a little less than $1 billion.

Similar proposals from the DFL governor’s office have been whittled down as they work through a GOP-controlled legislature. This year’s proposal is larger than what house and senate Republicans indicated they’d be comfortable with. Borrowing for higher education makes up about a third of the governor’s bonding plan.

Bonding bills are typically approved in even-year legislative sessions, but lawmakers couldn’t agree on one in 2016. BSU’s funding requests didn’t make it into a relatively small bonding measure last year.

The Hagg-Sauer project is a top priority in the governor’s proposal this year, which means it’s likely to still get funded even if legislators send a scaled-down bonding agreement to the governor this spring.

Pogemiller said he thinks the project seems “pretty doable” this legislative session. Bliss echoed that sentiment.

“I think Bemidji State is really a jewel of the area, and we really need to maintain it,” Bliss said. “I think this year will be the year that we get the bonding coverage for this project.”

The project would cost about $22.5 million and would replace the building with a brand-new “academic learning center” that would be about one third the size. BSU staff say the new building would save about $44,000 in annual maintenance and $22,000 in utilities. It would also render moot millions of dollars worth of maintenance the existing building needs.

Also on the agenda for Pogemiller and Bliss’ visit was a quick tour of BSU’s new Department of Integrated Media. Finishing that project freed up space for the 50-60 faculty who’ll be displaced if and when Hagg-Sauer gets replaced, school staff said. The pair also visited Memorial Hall, which university leaders renovated extensively with $13.5 million from a 2014 bonding bill.

BSU and NTC are also in line for bonding money to pay for smaller-scale projects there. School administrators hope to receive $6.5 million in “Higher Education Asset Preservation” money from this year’s bonding measure. That money would pay for upgraded energy management controls, an improved power distribution system, and a new roof for Sattgast Hall at BSU; and new air handling units and a new door-locking system at NTC.

Legislators are scheduled to convene Feb. 20 in St. Paul.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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