A recent feasibility report commissioned by the Northwest College Foundation tested the waters for a campaign to help renovate the Nelson Performing Arts Center and help build a new student center.
One of the questions addressed by the feasibility study — which found support for the two projects — was whether the community felt one project was timelier than the other.
“Both at the same time? One before the other? Which one first? Those were some of the things we were trying to learn,” said Foundation Executive Director Shelby Wetzel. “What they told us [through the study] was that both are very important, and that for our future, our pride and the community’s pride in this college to continue to be a showpiece, we need to do them both.”
Wetzel outlined the report’s findings at last week’s meeting of the NWC Board of Trustees.
College president Stefani Hicswa noted that the performing arts center renovation and the new student center “are the two big projects that were identified in our facilities master planning work as projects that are needed.”
Initial “Level 1” planning studies estimated that overhauling the Nelson Performing Arts Center might cost around $33 million and a new student center might cost upwards of $35 million, for a total potential cost of more than $67 million.
“We’re moving through the state approval process, and ultimately seeking funding from the state for capital construction,” Hicswa said. The feasibility study assumed that the state will cover about half of the cost of the two projects and that the college “can come up with the rest, either through loans or bonds and fundraising,” she said.
The potential fundraising plan put forward last week envisions up to $8 million being raised from private donations.
The independent consulting firm eAdvancement conducted the study, which was designed to gauge potential donors’ level of interest in the projects and lay out how to proceed with the information gathered. The firm’s recommendation — and the one Wetzel brought before the board — was to delay
significant fundraising activity until NWC receives Level 2 funding from the state, which would provide the money for architectural plans for the projects.
Under the consultants’ plan, fundraising efforts would start in the year to 18 months after receiving Level 2 funding with what’s known as the “silent phase” — the period prior to an official announcement or launch of the campaign. Funds raised during the silent phase typically account for 50 percent or more of the final goal.
“It’s kind of a pyramid: You get the big gifts at the bottom from just a few donors, and then you work your way to the top,” Hicswa said. “But before that can happen, we had to assess the timing and the viability of moving forward to get the Level Two funding, and that’s what the study was for.”
Those interviewed for the study represented a diverse mix of donors, members of the foundation board, alumni, former and current members of the Board of Trustees and staff. According to the study, every one of those interviewed described their relationship with the college as a positive one, citing NWC’s “deep commitment” to students, its importance to the community and the value of its educational programs. NWC was also praised for its institutional leadership, notably the president’s office, trustees and the foundation.
Hicswa said she was pleased with the outcome of the study.
“I’m excited about this project and I’m excited by the college’s role in philanthropy,” she said. “People feel so strongly about the college and supporting our students ... They feel it’s an important part of their philanthropic giving as a community, which is very cool.”
While the findings of the study were overwhelmingly positive that the projects represented a need, it was not without words of caution. According to the study, there was an “undercurrent of surprise” by those that participated that NWC would attempt such an ambitious fundraising effort during an uncertain economic climate. Hicswa said that was the one aspect of the study that gave her pause.
“The economy fluctuates,” Hicswa said. “It won’t stay like this forever, and so we’ve got to plan for the future. I understand that statement with the condition of our economy, but if we don’t plan, 20 years will go by like nothing.”
Wetzel echoed those thoughts.
“The college has a facility master plan, which we’re doing a revision to right now,” she said. “But these two buildings have been high on the list for renovations for a number of years. Stefani [Hicswa] is committed to making some things happen, so we started the planning process last year with the Level One planning to get a basic understanding of what we want to happen. So now it becomes, how do we make it a reality?”
Wetzel said despite the current era of budget cuts and lack of state funding, the need to move forward on these projects hasn’t changed.
“In a lot of ways, these projects are imperative for recruiting and the future of Northwest,” Wetzel said. “Students have choices, and many of the other campuses are ahead of us as far as having new buildings.”
Seemingly gone are the days when students would choose a college based solely on what the school offers academically; ancillary benefits are also taken into consideration, according to Wetzel.
“We might look a little tired [by comparison], and as much as we could talk about the quality of our academic program, today’s students are also looking at the surface level,” she explained. “They’re looking at, ‘What does your fitness center look like? What’s your student center look like? What’s my dorm room look like?’ Students like options, and we need to become a viable option again.”
With perhaps a year and a half to go before Level 2 funding may be available from the state, the foundation will now create an action plan from the consultant’s recommendations. Some of the recommendations were communication-related, designed to update the community with each step of the process.
“It’s about creating a news flow about the projects, as well as some of the other things that are happening on campus, just so you’re continuing to build connections,” Wetzel said. “The cultivation is the bringing people to campus to see the current facilities and helping them understand the projects. It will be that communications base and working with folks to envision the new project.”