Bellevue College president sketches bold vision for Issaquah campus
January 4, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Hurdles remain before construction can start in Issaquah Highlands
The formula for the Issaquah Highlands remains, for the most part, unchanged since residents settled in the community a dozen years ago: homes built almost eave-to-eave on tree-lined streets, even as plans for offices and retail offerings sputtered.
Bellevue College could juice up the long-established formula, or so community leaders hope.
The college campus proposed for the highlands could someday serve as a learning center for groups as assorted as school-aged children and retirees, a gathering spot for cultural festivals and fuel for the economy — if Bellevue College opts to transform a forested parcel near Central Park into a satellite campus.
College President Jean Floten started to consider the possibility more than a decade ago, as the population boomed on the Eastside.
“At that point in time, I really had lots of dreams and ambitions and very little money,” she said. “Not much has changed.”
The dynamic, nonetheless, has changed.
The acreage under consideration for a college campus is a piece in a complicated process to preserve forest land on Tiger Mountain and to open additional highlands land to construction.
The proposal has deep support from city leaders and the business community, but the prospect has also raised concerns among highlands residents about the potential for crowding and traffic in the hillside neighborhood.
The city has cleared the path for a campus on 20 acres in the highlands in recent months. The process could last for decades, as Bellevue College raises funds and builds the campus piecemeal. The initial phase could open as early as 2013.
Issaquah as a long-term goal
Floten said the decision to stake a claim beyond Bellevue germinated years ago. The college president and other leaders kept a close eye on the housing construction boom in the Issaquah Highlands, Snoqualmie Ridge and elsewhere in East King County.
“We’re thinking as this area grows that it makes sense for us to have something or some educational services that are available to people that are to the east of us,” Floten said. “We think over time more people are going to be moving into those areas.”
The recession — and the associated slide in real estate prices — hastened the effort to open another campus.
“As the economy has gotten the way it has been, we have stepped up our interest in real estate, because we thought, ‘Well, maybe now we can find affordable property,’” Floten said. “We found that the values in our community still are quite robust. We have looked for partnership opportunities.”
The rollout to Issaquah residents started in August, after the college announced the highlands as a potential campus site. Floten then offered a presentation to the city Urban Village Development Commission in October.
The college president pledged additional outreach in the years ahead in order to gauge interest in course offerings and programs.
“We’ll work very closely with the city and the structures that they already have in place, the committees, the review groups,” she said. “We’ll reach out to the schools that are there, the high schools, you know, pick their brain about programmatic ideas. We’ll just do an inventory of what’s there. What is the business and industry base? Who are the primary stakeholders that we should talk to? It will take us some time.”
The early attention has focused on the Swedish Medical Center campus under construction in the highlands. The hospital, scheduled to open in phases in mid-2011 and 2012, could serve a role in health care programs offered at the highlands campus.
“Right now, our big thrust is on workforce education, as people are retooling, mindful that the jobs that got us into the recession aren’t going to get us out,” Floten said.
Hub for education — and community
The idea of another economic engine in the city has enamored business and municipal leaders.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming Bellevue College to the community for all of the value it will bring for the citizens in providing extended educational opportunities, for both businesses and potential businesses to provide workforce training or retraining, and to support them in their goals,” Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott said in remarks to the City Council last month.
The city has considered the possibility of a college campus in Issaquah since at least 2005, after community leaders recommended a Bellevue College campus in a city-commissioned economic vitality report.
The proposed campus could reshape the surrounding neighborhood and Issaquah proper.
Bellevue College has outlined plans to build 372,000 square feet of institutional space, 56,000 square feet of additional space and 1,645 parking spaces on the 20-acre site.
“What I’ve dreamed of is enough acreage — and I think 20 acres is probably the optimal amount — where you have enough acreage that you actually feel like you’re on a campus and you’re not in a corporate building,” Floten said.
She said she envisions the campus as a hub for recent high school graduates en route to a traditional university, mid-career professionals in search of fresh skills and retirees enrolled in leisure courses.
Floten also foresees the campus as a setting for summer camps for children, plus family and cultural events — such as the Persian New Year and the Tet, or Vietnamese New Year.
Educators could offer an enhanced science curriculum, maybe a biodiversity program to capitalize on the nearby woodland.
“You look at being in the forest, and what’s there and what’s here, and you could create a really rich experience for kids,” Floten said. “We’re not going to lack for opportunities.”
The campus could also host Issaquah School District high school students in the Running Start dual-enrollment program.
Patrick Murphy, district executive director of secondary education, said the addition of some Running Start courses at a highlands campus could boost participation in the program.
The district has almost 300 students enrolled in the program during the current school year. (The total includes 25 home-schooled students from inside district boundaries.)
“Maybe Running Start is less appealing because of the distance, say, from Liberty High School,” Murphy said. “If it was located in the Issaquah Highlands, it might become more appealing and more students might be interested just because it’s so close by.”
Retooling for the recession
The untraditional composition of Bellevue College classes — including high schoolers and senior citizens — could also help bridge the generation gap.
“Even though we get kids as young as 15, they’re in classes with people their parents’ and grandparents’ ages,” Floten said. “It’s really interesting what that heterogeneity does. You hear kids go, ‘That’s the first time any adult has really listened to me.’ Or a grandma saying, ‘You know, what a great contributor.’ The net impact is, you get really serious students.”
Overall, the institution serves about 35,000 students each year. Only the University of Washington and Washington State University outrank the institution in size.
Statewide, community and technical colleges served a record 161,000 students during the 2009-10 academic year.
The recent recession has boosted enrollments at Bellevue College and elsewhere, just as the dot-com crash did at the start of the last decade.
“Many people, as soon as they found out they were laid off or they’ve been merged or acquired or outsourced said, ‘This can continue to happen to me or I can go back and retool and get into a field that shows more promise,’” Floten said. “We’re seeing people going back to school in droves, taking time out and investing in themselves.”
Janelle Runyon, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, lauded Bellevue College leaders for considering a satellite campus.
“The economy is going to bounce back and jobs will return,” she said. “I think it’s really important to look to the future and focus on the needs of students and the communities. That’s what community colleges are all about.”
The record enrollment has occurred alongside record budget cuts, and the cash-strapped state is unlikely to fund a Bellevue College campus in Issaquah.
“We are tumbling to the reality that state resources are pretty scarce, and if we want space relief, we’re going to have to be building our own future,” Floten said.
The main campus encompasses about 100 acres in Eastgate, plus another Bellevue facility near state Route 520.
Hurdles remain before construction
The initial hurdle for the Issaquah campus is the $5.2 million price tag for 20 acres near Northeast Park Drive. Then, campus construction could cost millions more in the decades ahead. The college is all but certain to turn to donors to help pick up the tab.
Floten and other leaders also face the unenviable task of reassuring highlands residents accustomed to bold promises and little action.
“First of all, I need to let people know that we have not entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement yet. I don’t want to over-commit,” she said. “We do need to do our due diligence as a state agency, and be convinced that it meets our needs and the community needs. If the community didn’t see a need, we won’t be there.”
The next step is to purchase the 20 acres from highlands builder Port Blakely Communities. The transaction is expected to be completed in the months ahead.
The proposed campus has also raised concerns about traffic congestion in the pedestrian-friendly highlands. The college has launched a traffic study to gauge the potential impact.
“It’s not like we’re bringing all of these people in from out of area,” Floten said. “The whole point of community-based education is that you’re serving the community that exists there.”
Challenges aside, leaders remain optimistic about a potential boon in the highlands. The college plans to continue to seek input from Issaquah residents in the year ahead.
“We just got really excited about the prospects,” Floten said. “There are a ton of opportunities. Who we are is, we’re very much the community’s college.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.