Proposed Life Sciences Building’s fate is iffy

By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Reporter

Governor Sean Parnell supports it. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has written editorials endorsing it. It is the sole budgetary request of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. “It” is the proposed UAF Life Sciences building, and its future is currently uncertain. The dispute comes from how the proposed building will be paid for.

Last year, the Board of Regents asked the legislature for close to $110 million to construct a brand new building for the life sciences. There are currently two senate bills seeking funding for this project. One bill, SB56, seeks to fund the project directly from the state’s general fund. The other bill is SB226, and would fund the project through a long-term, low-interest bond called a Certificate of Participation (COP). This same kind of bond was used to pay for the new Fairbanks courthouse and a prison down in the Mat-Su region. Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, have both said that the COP approach causes them some concern. They say that funding the project through a COP will make the project more expensive in the long run.

Chenault and Stoltze favor having the life sciences project go into a bond package that would be put before Alaskan voters. This package could also include money for a number of other projects. The fear that some, including UAF Director of Community Advocacy Ann Ringstad, have is that such a package could be too much for recession-weary voters. The other downside is that the new building’s site will sit undisturbed until next summer, with researchers and students forced to work and study in crowded trailers.

UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers has suggested an alternative idea. Rogers said that, if full funding is not available, the state should provide $22 million to at least get the project started. The idea is to get the life sciences building project “shovel ready” and with the up-front money UAF can get started with preliminary work for the project. That work includes relocating a greenhouse and putting in an underground utility corridor. Ann Ringstad said that there’s a precedent for the phased approach to constructing buildings in the university. Both the Butrovich Building and the Reichardt Building were constructed in phases.

There are risks with the phased approach however. UA Public Affairs Director Kate Ripley said that the Reichardt Building sat empty during one phase while the university sought enough money for furniture. The university had to pay to heat an empty building. Another concern with building in phases is rising costs. “Costs go up and then you have a moving target,” Ripley said. Ripley said that if people see a project getting more and more expensive, they’d be less likely to support it. Cynthia Henry, chair of the University Board of Regents, said that the board would like to see the project receive all the funding that they asked for. Henry has said that she’s spoken with Rep. Stoltze about this and has urged him to support paying for the project through either direct funding or a COP.

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