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April 3, 2023

Amid funding uncertainty, CSCU eyes new $350M Hartford campus for Capital Community College

PHOTO | COSTAR Capital Community College’s campus is in the former G. Fox department store building at 960 Main St. in downtown Hartford.

As downtown Hartford landlords search for new tenants amid millions of square feet of empty office space, a major new prospect could be hitting the market soon.

Capital Community College (CCC) is considering a new downtown Hartford campus, school officials confirmed to the Hartford Business Journal, as its existing space in the former G. Fox department store building at 960 Main St. becomes increasingly outdated and in need of significant repairs.

Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, which includes CCC, said all options are on the table, but the preference would be to buy a building downtown and renovate it for a new campus.

The ability to do that, however, hinges on the availability of state funding. A building purchase and redevelopment would come with a hefty price tag — approximately $350 million — that may get pushback from policymakers, including Gov. Ned Lamont, as the state college system faces budget deficits and declining enrollment.

In his two-year budget proposal, Lamont set aside $250,000 for a post-pandemic study of the entire CSCU system, including its finances, enrollment trends and future facility needs.

Other options for Capital Community College, Cheng said, could include renovating existing space, leasing new space, or even building a new campus from the ground up.

CCC currently occupies 11 floors and 304,000 square feet of CSCU-owned space in the G. Fox Building.Capital Community would need about the same square footage in any new location, Cheng said.

He also stressed campus relocation efforts are in the early stages and that the only prerequisite is that Capital Community College remain in downtown Hartford to serve as an economic driver for the city.

“If you look at the revitalization of downtowns across America, higher education has much to do with it,” Cheng said. “Our students would be within walking distance of multiple companies and industries, both large and small, that can offer experiential learning. Our students can receive an excellent education, but also be part of the city’s and state’s workforce. There is a tremendous upside not just for our students and the companies, but also from an economic impact standpoint.”

Appropriate funding

The future campus upgrade is part of an ambitious new capital investment program CSCU is currently lobbying state lawmakers to support.

The plan — known as CSCU 2030 — was unveiled in January and outlines $2.1 billion in capital projects over a seven-year period, in addition to higher annual block grant funding to support new academic programs, student services and a free community college program.

In terms of capital investments, the proposal asks for $50 million in fiscal 2024 for the purchase of a property and design of a new CCC campus. It asks for an additional $300 million for the campus build-out in fiscal 2027.

It’s unclear if the CSCU 2030 plan will garner legislative support.

When asked if the Lamont administration backs it, Chris Collibee, director of communications for the Office of Policy and Management, said the Democratic governor’s two-year budget plan proposed in February recommends $253.3 million in capital funding in fiscal years 2024 and 2025 for CSCU, which oversees the state’s community colleges, four state universities — Central, Western, Eastern and Southern — and the online Charter Oak State College.

If approved, that funding would enhance CSCU’s ability to allocate and prioritize resources to address needed campus upgrades, Collibee said, “as well as those projects that help to meet the student demand for programs and services.”

However, Collibee also noted that the CSCU system has experienced an approximate 30% enrollment decline over the last decade, which could impact future funding decisions.

Capital Community College’s enrollment decline has been even more severe, Collibee said, down 43% from fall 2010 to 2,395 students today.

CSCU officials countered that capital improvements within the public college system are funded through state bonding, which has been restricted in recent years.

That has forced CSCU to use operating funds for capital projects, exacerbating its financial challenges.

In October, Cheng warned state lawmakers of a looming $220 million deficit in fiscal years 2024 and 2025 for the CSCU system, driven by unfunded pension and contractual obligations, declining enrollment and other factors.

Repurposing challenges

Regardless of the funding amount, Capital Community College’s campus is in need of an upgrade, Cheng said.

CCC moved into its current location in 2002, and the historic 105-year-old former department store property was last renovated 20 years ago.

The facility, Cheng said, doesn’t meet the school’s needs to support in-demand programs like nursing, and restrictions within the building create inherent repurposing challenges.

“The current facilities are not appropriate nor sufficient for that level of learning,” Cheng said. “During COVID, for example, students were doing clinical work in an auditorium with a leaking roof.”

Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Terrence Cheng.

In addition, Cheng said, some of the building’s equipment — including air handling units that provide heated and cooled air — have reached the end of their service life and need replacement.

A limited number of elevators also presents logistical challenges.

“With only five elevators servicing the 11 floors of the building, there is high demand for their use,” he said. “That leads to frequent outages for maintenance and repairs. The issue impacts the entire campus and creates bottlenecks.”

Upgraded space would also send a message that all students deserve an education in a quality campus, Cheng said, noting many pupils who attend the college come from challenged socioeconomic backgrounds.

“If we are serious about closing the equity and achievement gaps, there is value in investing in all our campuses,” Cheng said. “Decisions were made throughout the years that ultimately led to investments in other campuses, more suburban campuses around the state. It shows our values in where we choose to invest our money.”

Cheng said a significant portion of any new building will be dedicated to health care, since about 30% of Capital Community College students are enrolled in a health or nursing program.

There would also be significant space for business and IT programs.

Part of the goal of a new campus would be to create stronger partnerships with private industry, Cheng said.

Real estate options

Maintaining Capital Community College’s campus downtown would be a key priority for the city, which for years has tried to build up its image as a college town.

It’s had some wins and losses along the way.

A major victory came in 2017 when UConn debuted its new Hartford campus on Front Street as part of a $140 million investment. The satellite campus was formerly located in West Hartford.

UConn also has a large presence in Constitution Plaza, where its graduate business and other programs are located.

The University of St. Joseph in 2011 launched a new pharmacy doctoral program downtown. However, the West Hartford-based university, located on the city’s outskirts, relocated that program to its main campus last year.

Meantime, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in February put its Hartford campus on Windsor Street up for sale after the New York-based school scaled back its presence in recent years amid an embrace of virtual learning.

RPI said it plans to look for smaller space within the city.

Larry Levere

Larry Levere, an office broker with Hartford-based Sentry Commercial, said Capital Community College has numerous options downtown depending on what path it chooses.

There are several empty buildings that could be suitable for redevelopment, including Rensselaer’s 13-acre campus, which has an eight-story classroom building and amphitheater, plus a parking garage and surface parking with 860 spaces.

The old YMCA building on Jewell Street has been vacant for years and the 304,413-square-foot mid-rise office/retail complex at 242 Trumbull St. was put up for sale last year amid a high office vacancy rate. Both of those properties are owned by Northland.

There’s also the empty former Xerox and state office building at 25 Sigourney St.

In terms of potential ground-up development, the U.S. General Services Administration is currently scouting downtown locations for a new $335 million federal courthouse building.

Last fall, the federal agency identified three potential parking lot sites for the planned 281,000-square-foot building, including 10 Ford St. and the properties located at the corners of Allyn, Church and High streets; and Capitol Avenue and Buckingham, Hudson and West streets.

Whichever sites aren’t chosen for the courthouse could be considered by Capital Community College, Levere said.

If CCC leases space it could target several office buildings with high vacancy rates.

At the end of the fourth quarter of 2022, 23.2% of downtown Hartford’s 9.7 million square feet of office space was identified as available, according to brokerage firm CBRE.

“I think residents and students are critical to the vibrancy of downtown Hartford, so I am hoping that every effort will be made to keep CCC downtown,” Levere said.

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