Building a community

By Bill Knief

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It started with a vote of confidence.

In 2001 the citizens of Taos County and the Enchanted Circle took an extraordinary step. They voted to tax themselves in order to support UNM-Taos and the expansion of Klauer campus. According to Campus Resource Director Dennis Cruz, it was the only tax of its kind in the state to benefit public schools and higher education.

By the summer of 2005, “Klauer Power—Watch Us Grow!” was the up and coming slogan. The more than 18,000 sq. ft. Phase III complex south of town, complete with spacious classrooms, offices, student lounge and snack bar was dried in and nearing completion. In keeping with UNM-Taos’s commitment to a “green” campus, the design called for state of the art sustainability components. Additional plans were in the works for a daycare center, career tech building, library learning center—even an amphitheatre was envisioned.

Then, without warning, everything stopped. What happened?

Rudy Baca, head of the facilities and operations department, explains it this way:

“What happened was Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina hit, the price of construction materials doubled, even tripled, and our costs skyrocketed overnight. We had contractual obligations requiring a completed building, so at that point money allocated for infrastructure began to be absorbed by the building itself.”

That wasn’t all. It soon became painfully apparent that the architect’s estimates for the unusual structure were drastically lower than actual costs. And the 10,000 square foot building had somehow swelled to almost 19,000.

Then there was the fire.

“All along we had been assured by the facilities planning folks down at UNM that we would be able to get a variance from the state in order to use existing water and sewer infrastructure,” noted Baca. “But then Zimmerman Library caught fire on the UNM Albuquerque campus, and suddenly nobody was giving variances for fire suppression anymore. We had to shut down.”

Another predictable, sad ending to a great Taos idea? Hardly.

While current Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill was still interim director, she began building partnerships. She went to the legislature with the full support of northern New Mexico’s legislative delegation and came away not with everything she was after, but with enough to breathe a little life back into the project.

“The most amazing thing, though,” Campus Resource Director Cruz maintained, “was the way the Town of Taos and El Valle Water and Sanitation District came together to unequivocally support our project. I don’t know of another example of a campus having to put in its own infrastructure, but with the help and cooperation of these two entities, we’re doing it.

“You see, we’re not just putting up school buildings out there—we’re building a community.”

Drive out to Klauer today, and you’ll see the Flintco crew back at work testing the soil and moving dirt with a grader and dozer, preparing the ground for the Career Tech and Child Care centers. According to Baca, both the water and sewer line projects will be put out to bid by the end of October, and, weather permitting, Career Tech and Child Care structures will be completed by spring of ’08, with the Phase III classrooms opening sometime in ’09. And hookup to the water and sewer lines won’t be far behind.

Challenges still remain. A staggering sum, over three million dollars, must be secured from the legislature and elsewhere before the dream of a sustainable, dynamic community college can be fully realized. But El Valle has secured a combination grant- and-loan from the U.S .Department of Agriculture to start the water and sewer infrastructure, and the kickoff for the second annual Sustainability Fundraising Appeal starts this week. O’Neill is not discouraged:

“UNM-Taos today is a reflection of the values of those citizens that voted in 2001 to support this great work. We won’t stop until we fully live up to that commitment and this community has the college it deserves.”

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