This architectural rendering shows the design of the proposed Walker Education and Research Center at Utah State University-Moab. County council members postponed consideration last week of an interlocal agreement to evenly split the debt service with the city on a loan to fund the infrastructure phase of the USU-Moab campus project. [Image courtesy of Utah State University]

Are Utah State University’s new leadership team in Logan and local elected officials on the same page with the community’s vision of a destination university campus in Moab?

Grand County Council members sought an answer to that question before they allocated more funding to a crucial phase of a municipal infrastructure project that would pave the way to a new campus off U.S. Highway 191.

The council voted 5-0 on Wednesday, July 5, to postpone consideration of an interlocal agreement with the City of Moab that would evenly split the debt service on a $727,000 loan between the two entities; Jaylyn Hawks and Rory Paxman were absent from the meeting.

Council member Curtis Wells, who brought the question of USU’s commitment to the council’s attention following a recent meeting between university and city officials, subsequently met with USU leaders. Wells said his July 12 meeting with USU representatives addressed the concerns he previously voiced at the council’s July 5 meeting, and he now hopes that the county council will revisit the interlocal agreement at its next meeting on Tuesday, July 18.

While plans for the USU-Moab campus have taken some time to get off the ground, Wells said that city, county and university officials are making real progress on the project, and they’re expected to begin work on the infrastructure component in 2019.

“Moab is an international brand name and the potential for growth for our local USU extension is unique and exciting,” he told the Moab Sun News.

A collaborative process to establish initial programming and potential growth patterns is also in the works, Wells said, and he’s confident of a “very positive” outcome.

“Because there are many community expectations for this campus and its potential, it is important that we share a collective vision with our partners,” he said. “There are a lot of moving pieces involved in projects like this, including a relatively new university president, our local university director and elected leadership locally. It’s important that the community understands that we’re on the same page and the good news is that we’ve accomplished that and we’re moving forward with confidence and excitement.”

Former USU President Stan Albrecht previously said that he considered the Moab campus to be the next facility on the university’s construction wish list. However, Albrecht retired in 2016, and former USU Executive Vice President and Provost Noelle E. Cockett officially took over as the university’s new leader in January.

In response to the concerns that Wells and other county council members raised during their July 5 meeting, Utah State University spokesperson Tim Vitale said that Cockett remains “absolutely committed” to Moab.

“We have a long history of working together with the Moab community to provide exceptional programs, and that commitment continues today unchanged,” he told the Moab Sun News. “We have been in regular discussions with Moab community members about how programming will evolve, and those conversations are ongoing and important to us.”

As one example, Vitale noted that the university just named Dr. Lianna Etchberger as its new executive director for the USU-Moab area, and Etchberger’s husband – the vice provost of regional campuses – is making Moab his home.

“So we and our people are investing in a long-term relationship with Moab and its community,” Vitale said.

City faces deadline to close on CIB loan

Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) voted in early February to give the city a combination of funding for the USU infrastructure project, including a $726,241 grant, and the $727,000 loan.

In a May 19 memo to city and county officials, Moab City Community Services Director Amy Weiser said the city is in danger of losing the award if it doesn’t close on the loan by Aug. 9.

“Prior to spending time and money on construction documents the City is seeking some assurance from the County that they will share in the repayment of the debt service,” Weiser wrote.

Moab City Council member Kalen Jones told the Moab Sun News that a CIB representative “strongly implied” that as long as the city proceeds diligently in meeting the terms and conditions of the loan, the Aug. 9 date is not necessarily a hard deadline.

City officials initially approached the CIB seeking a grant for more than $1.45 million, and Wells said he believes that the project partners can work out a better deal with the state board.

“This isn’t the only opportunity that CIB is going to give us to fund this campus,” Wells said.

The infrastructure project includes work to extend Mill Creek Drive across Highway 191 to the proposed site of the new campus below the Moab Rim. City, county and state funding for the project would also lay the groundwork for improvements that would facilitate residential and commercial development in the area, including new streets, curbs and sidewalks; and water, sewer and utility lines.

Altogether, those improvements come with an estimated price tag of more than $3.85 million.

Under the proposed interlocal agreement with the city, Grand County would commit itself to somewhere between $23,062 to $23,712 per year in debt service payments on the $727,000 loan from the CIB. That annual amount would come on top of the $525,000 that the county has already committed to the project.

Jones said that he supports the county council’s July 5 vote to postpone action on the interlocal agreement, adding that it’s important to make sure that everyone is on board with the community’s vision for the new campus.

“I think it was prudent on their part,” Jones said. “… They’re one step removed, so it behooves them to be cautious about what they commit themselves to.”

At this point, Jones hasn’t seen any written documents that outline the academic vision for a new campus, and he would welcome the development of something – even if it’s just a one-page overview.

“It seems like with the scale of investment that we’re talking about, it’s time to perhaps make sure that all of the stakeholders are in agreement about the vision, or what’s going to happen to this property,” Jones said.

Likewise, Grand County Council member Pat Trim said earlier that he’d like to see a commitment in writing from every entity that’s involved in the project.

“It would make me feel more comfortable if there was something that all of the parties – the city, the county and USU – got together and said, ‘Hey, we want to make this happen – let’s at least sign a letter of commitment,’” Trim said on July 5. “It may not be totally binding, but at least it’s something that we can hang our hat on.”

Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said it’s his understanding that USU is still very supportive of the community’s goals and intentions.

“I think the gist of what Curtis and the rest of the council (wanted) to get at is, let’s get a deeper level of commitment (from USU),” he told the Moab Sun News.

At this stage, Levine said it’s clear to him that a meeting with the university’s leadership would be appropriate.

Moving forward, Levine said, there will be ongoing funding needs that are required to bring the full campus vision to fruition.

“But nothing is possible at this point without this infrastructure corridor, which is why there was such a strong push over the last six months to get it in place,” he said during the council’s July 5 meeting.

It’s important that the community understands that we’re on the same page and the good news is that we’ve accomplished that and we’re moving forward with confidence and excitement.

Council postpones vote on agreement to fund infrastructure pending further discussion