By Bill Knief
On December 4, 2013, without fanfare or ceremony, UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill and UNM-Taos Operations Director Mario Suazo stopped by the mayor’s office to get his signature on the lease/purchase option that clears the way for the community college to begin repurposing Rio Grande and Bataan Halls from a convention center facility to the classrooms, laboratories and offices of our community college.
“Everyone I’ve run into on the streets of Taos as well as in Santa Fe and at main campus—around the whole state, actually—has said this is a great opportunity and a great project,” O’Neill said.
“These buildings need capital improvement, but they are not neglected buildings,” Mayor Cordova commented. “They are viable buildings, but we had to ask the question: are we investing in something that is going to yield positive results? Clearly, the answer is that we are not going to invest in them but we are going to divest these properties to an entity that can put them fully to use for the public good. It just makes sense. The whole area is going to be vibrant because of this.”
O’Neill cautioned that the there were more accountability steps to go through, with DFA, the Governor, the Higher Education Department, the State Board of Finance and others before the full purchase option could be implemented. “We want to make sure that all those entities understand that this is a win not only for the college but for the community.
“ Now that we are ten years as a branch we want to take a fresh look at things and ask ourselves where we want to go from here. When I started as director seven years ago we had 11 different locations, and with the build out of Klauer campus and this expansion we will be down to two, despite the fact that enrollment has grown 22 percent over the last five years and this fall we had the highest growth rate in the state.”
“I am proud to be able to help you make it happen,” Cordova said.
A few days later I had a follow-up conversation with Dr. O’Neill. She said that the due diligence process would be extensive and involve university engineers, the Office of Capital Projects, the UNM real estate and legal departments and others in order to verify the condition of the buildings. She said that the process would be costly but necessary, and compared to new construction, she felt that the college will be getting four times as much space for one third of the cost by repurposing the convention center.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through in terms of the approval process for ownership, but to have 26,000 square feet of essentially open space that is already built and that can be readily renovated in a timely manner is a fantastic opportunity for us to expand the facilities we have occupied on Civic Plaza Drive for 20 years. The buildings are essentially in good shape. They have good bones, and while preserving an iconic facility and making an investment in our downtown, we are setting the stage for continuing success in our second decade as a branch. Preliminary estimates indicate that it will take from a year to two years to complete the renovation, and an investment of between two and four million dollars. Continuing to be good stewards of our resources will clearly be paramount in that effort.”
In terms of enrollment, support for UNM-Taos remains strong. We are well on the way to registering more than half of the spring semester student body before we close for winter break on Friday, December 20. If you are thinking about enrolling, it’s a good idea to start now by calling 737-6200 or coming out to Pueblo Hall to talk to an advisor, find out about financial aid and select your classes. The spring schedule is in racks around town and you can find it on our website, taos.unm.edu. But don’t wait too long to get started. You won’t be able to register between December 21 and January 1, and the first day of classes is right after Martin Luther King Day, January 21.