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State senators tour Hagg-Sauer, where officials hope to replace aging building

An artist rendering of the possible new academic learning center at BSU. Submitted.

BEMIDJI -- As Minnesota legislators ready to reconvene this February, Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, and other state senators on Tuesday toured BSU, where staff want to realize a long-hoped-for construction and renovation project.

BSU leaders hope state lawmakers will agree to issue $22.5 million in general obligation bonds to pay for a new “academic learning center” to replace aging Hagg-Sauer Hall and renovations to Bensen, Sattgast, Bridgeman and Bangsberg halls, as well as the A.C. Clark Library.

Eichorn sits on the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee. He and other committee members’ statewide “bonding tour” stopped at BSU to discuss the university’s project, and they’re scheduled to hold a public meeting Wednesday morning about a proposed Bemidji-area veterans home that could be funded the same way.

At the university, Physical Plant Manager Travis Barnes led committee members and some of their staffers into the Hagg-Sauer basement, which he said uses some of the same equipment it did when it was constructed in 1970, which means replacement parts difficult to find.

“We just have old stuff that we're just constantly putting bandaids on and trying to make repairs to,” Barnes said. Elsewhere, water seeps in and the building’s cast-iron pipes leak. Hagg-Sauer’s classrooms don’t have the high-tech flair that newer ones in recently updated Memorial Hall do, other staffers said, and third-floor offices are cramped.

Even-year legislative sessions generally produce large-scale bonding bills, and, hours before the senators’ visit, staff at Gov. Mark Dayton’s office unveiled his plan to borrow $1.5 billion for projects across the state, including BSU’s construction and renovation plans. The DFL governor’s proposal, though, will presumably be whittled down by a GOP-majority House and Senate before it reaches his desk.

BSU staff and administrators have hoped to get Hagg-Sauer replaced for years. Barnes said it needs about $6.8 million worth of maintenance, and the other buildings to be renovated need another $2.5 million between them. Those costs would presumably be moot if the project gets funding.

University administrators plan to spend $17.5 to $18 million to construct Hagg-Sauer’s replacement, plus about another $4 million on “soft” costs such as design work, testing, and furniture, spokesperson Scott Faust said. Tony Peffer, the university’s provost and vice president for academic and student affairs, said the new building would save the school $22,000 in utilities every year and $44,000 in maintenance.

Also in the hunt for bonding money are leaders at Red Lake Schools, who spoke with capital investment committee members Tuesday after BSU staff had finished their presentation.

Red Lake’s administrators are angling for $14.5 million to build a secure corridor to connect the district’s elementary and early childhood buildings, add six new classrooms and renovate or expand other classrooms and the cafeteria.

The school district and university’s projects didn’t make it into last year’s smaller-scale borrowing measure. Minnesota Management and Budget office staff said the governor’s office received about $3 billion in funding requests this year.

Dayton’s office said he feels another $858 million in locally minded projects “merit state investments” but weren’t included in his proposal. Dayton, who a spokesman said was sick "with a bad cold" Tuesday, said in a statement that "years of underinvestment have shortchanged our economy, our higher education institutions and the vitality of our communities." He has said he will not run for office again, so this is his last chance to get lawmakers to approve some projects that are near to his heart.

Senate bonding Chairman Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, called it "a bonding bill that busts the budget." He was one of about a half-dozen senators who toured BSU on Tuesday.

State Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass a bonding bill, were happy with Dayton’s proposal.

"Now that we have the governor’s recommendations, the Legislature can move forward and craft a robust, balanced bill," Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, said. "Minnesota communities are counting on the Legislature to help them fund and improve water infrastructure facilities, housing, higher education and upgrade unsafe railroad crossings, among other critical requests.”

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene on Feb. 20.

Forum News Service’s Don Davis contributed to this report.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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