MU renovation proposal won't be abandoned

Iowa State students last month voted down a fee hike to renovate and add on to the Memorial Union, but interim director Corey Williamson said the conversation about "what's next" began almost immediately. It has included current students and administrators, as well as the facility's advisory board of directors, which met recently for the first time since the March 7-8 vote.

The Memorial Union is 89 years old and, because of some key improvement needs, doing nothing simply isn't an option, Williamson said.

"We have some short-term needs that we just can't ignore in order to keep this building functioning," he said.

The focus this spring has shifted to two specific goals:

  • Renovate the former hotel floors (four through six) to office space. The floors currently are a temporary solution to the demand for on-campus student housing -- but outdated infrastructure can't sustain a residence operation long-term, he said. Students are scheduled to occupy the space during the 2017-18 academic year. The hotel was a critical revenue source for the Memorial Union.
  • Resolve some of the building's critical deferred maintenance needs. A 2015 facility assessment identified about $28 million worth of projects. For example, one piece of the heating/cooling system is original to the building. A few projects, such as the slate roof replaced last fall, are complete. But about $26 million in deferred maintenance remains.

A modest student fee increase is a likely way to pay for those immediate needs, Williamson said. Student senators discussed such a proposal at their April 19 meeting, but ultimately didn't vote on it and will return to the topic in the fall. Senators said they didn't have enough time or information to reach a decision.

Nationally, student fees are the usual way to pay for student unions on university campuses, Williamson said, so that needs to remain a key funding piece.

The original proposal

By a 62 percent to 38 percent margin, students who voted in March on the issue -- some 8,000 -- turned down the proposal to raise student fees a total of $72 over two years to cover $55 million of a $65 million project. The MU currently receives $27.55/student per semester. The multiple-phase, three- to four-year project would:

  • Convert floors four through six from residence/hotel rooms to office space
  • Renovate parts of the other floors to create more spaces for dining seating, student organizations and meetings; and replace the recreation area
  • Build a three-story northeast addition to enlarge the spaces for service offices such as the multicultural center, veterans center and student organizations

In the process, it also would have addressed about 40 percent of the deferred maintenance issues.

Why it didn't succeed

Williamson said the March proposal was modest in scale and cost, and "one step" toward addressing the impact of enrollment growth on students' experience. He said MU staff and student proponents of the project battled several challenges leading up to the vote, including:

  • A short time period -- about three weeks -- to share and promote the final proposal
  • Student concern about tuition and fee increases in the face of state funding cuts
  • A misperception among students that some other campus building projects would address the space needs of student organizations
  • The proposal is based on three-year-old input from student leaders and organizations

Beginning this fall, Williamson said MU staff will work with students again to learn about space needs for the long term and any other concerns behind the referendum defeat, and determine "the best path to addressing their needs."

The needs assessment will include faculty and staff input. Acknowledging that the Union's student focus may not appeal to some employees, Williamson said he'd like to identify ways to draw faculty and staff to the facility and make it truly a community building.