Northwest College mulls residence hall options


With Cody Hall closed this year due to problems with moisture and mold, Northwest College leaders are taking a serious look at options for the residence hall — and at their overall housing strategy for the campus.

Enrollment at the college remained relatively flat this year after falling for several years, giving NWC administrators the option of closing Cody Hall to study the moisture problem. Possible solutions include repairing the damage only; repairing the damage while also doing a moderate upgrade; tearing down Cody Hall and building a new residence hall; and tearing down the hall without replacing it.

“If Cody Hall can be fixed, we have to ask ourselves if we want to invest in that,” said Lisa Watson, vice president for administrative services and finance.

The Cody Hall problem surfaced late this summer. That happened before NWC President Stefani Hicswa and Watson were able to complete a database of deferred maintenance needs for college buildings, on and off campus. For the past three years, they’ve been working to compile and prioritize that information, and to develop streams of revenue for maintenance and replacement.

Not least among deferred maintenance problems are the college’s five residence halls, four of which have maintenance needs that have gone unaddressed for years.

Unlike classroom buildings, residence halls are generally ineligible for state maintenance or capital construction funding, because they are supposed to be self-sustaining, Watson said.

Trustees Dusty Spomer of Powell and Luke Anderson of Cody volunteered to work with architects from Plan One to come up with solutions for Cody Hall that are most palatable to the board.

Other problems

Northwest College officials have tried to walk the line between keeping housing costs down for students while also attempting to keep up with basic maintenance. But the NWC Board of Trustees learned at their Sept. 18 meeting that they’re losing that battle. During her presentation, Watson told the board:

• In addition to Cody Hall’s major problems, Ashley Hall is similarly built and has some minor water damage that will surely escalate if the causes are not fixed.

• Colter Hall is the oldest residence hall on campus and needs significant upgrades. It is the focus of a fundraising drive by the Northwest College Foundation.

• The Trapper Apartments on campus have the worst construction on campus and are deteriorating. Though they’re popular with students, the experts advise making no improvements.

• Trapper West Apartments are well-constructed, but they’re off the main campus and not easily accessible to students without transportation. Most are built family style and not designed to house single students.

Housing is one of the top considerations for students when they’re choosing where to attend college, Watson said.

“Students are more interested in where they’re going to be living” than where they will attend classes, she said.

Watson noted that Northwest College was the first community college in Wyoming to have residence halls. Several other colleges have followed suit.

“When we compare Northwest to other colleges, we’re not doing too bad,” she said. With a couple of exceptions, “they’re all getting up there (and) a lack of systemic improvements is starting to affect them.”

Possible options

Housing options outlined by Watson include:

• Repairing or replacing Cody Hall. But in order to do that, a revenue stream must be identified to pay for it, Watson said.

Trustees were guardedly hopeful that state money might be available to repair or replace the hall, since there is a precedence for that. Lawmakers awarded Eastern Wyoming Community College 65 percent of the cost to replace one of its two residence halls in 2006 when it had similar mold problems.

However, the state had surplus money at that time; Wyoming’s financial outlook now is much less rosy.

•Tearing down Cody Hall, then reconfiguring Trapper West Apartments to house more single students.

However, without other changes, that won’t solve some ripple effects that would occur, she noted.

“We are limited in our ability to meet student requests if we were to permanently eliminate a residence hall,” Watson said.

Those include a limited ability to provide “super single” rooms where students don’t have roommates.

It also could affect the college’s dining program, she said.

Northwest College provides a dining program with a variety of options for students. But about 500 students need to participate in order for the dining program to remain viable, she said. With Cody Hall closed this year, the number of students who are dining on campus is just under 500, she added.

Busing students to and from Trapper West could help solve that and other problems, Watson said. But neither option would hold up well if Northwest experienced a large enrollment increase, as it did in 2012. At that time, all residence halls were full, and other than Simpson Hall, super single rooms were not available, she said.

Watson said freshman students are required to live on campus, but many sophomores choose to live in off-campus housing.

• Another option would be to close all the residence halls and require students to find their own housing off campus. But it is doubtful that the private sector could provide housing or dining for that many students, Watson said.

The complexity of the situation makes it necessary to take time to evaluate those and other options, both from practicality and financial standpoints. For that reason, the board likely will want to take more than one year to arrive at the longterm solution it deems is best for the college and its students, Watson told the board.

However, “it does not mean that we would not do any work between now and 2019,” she told the Tribune in an email. “Specifically, there are some very reasonable repair estimates in place for the external soil removal and application of a sealant” to eliminate the [moisture] intrusion. This would be a temporary fix to stop the intrusion in Cody [Hall] and to eliminate the potential for intrusion in Ashley. We will most likely look at an option like this for next summer.”

Price adjustments needed

Regardless of what happens with Cody Hall, initial information provided by Watson indicates student housing costs will have to increase to cover the cost of staffing, maintenance and eventual replacement.

Using average enrollment and housing figures, the average annual revenue for all five residence halls is estimated at just under $1.53 million. Estimated expenses are about the same, with $2,529 left over.

However, when 2 percent of the halls’ estimated replacement cost (per industry standard) is added to expenses to help cover deferred maintenance, that creates an estimated annual loss of $784,618.

Watson said an estimate of existing deferred maintenance for residence halls or other facilities has not yet been calculated. More research and building assessments are required before that number will be available.

“We’re kind of on a path that’s not sustainable,” trustee Spomer said. “We’re not getting the job done.”

NWC Plant Manager Dave Plute said the board “has had a very difficult decision to balance access and affordability for the students.”

But, with deferred maintenance problems growing, “How long can we afford to subsidize student housing?” Plute asked.

“We don’t have a high level of science behind the pricing structure,” Spomer said. “It’s just plain and simple — we’re on a losing path.”

*Seven units in Trapper Village Main are currently uninhabitable.

**Cody Hall is closed this school year while damage to the building is investigated.