The University of Minnesota Rochester buildings in downtown Rochester, including a proposed campus near the former YMCA building.
The University of Minnesota logo on the Galleria At University Square, where the University of Minnesota Rochester is located March 11, 2021, in downtown Rochester.
It was a decades-long enterprise, bringing a new four-year university to Rochester. And retired business owner Marilyn Stewart recalls the moment when it began to feel real.
It was 16 years ago that Stewart received a phone call from a friend, telling her that a big “M” now adorned the Broadway side of the Galleria Mall (now Galleria at University Square) in downtown Rochester. The news propelled Stewart out of her real estate office and into her car. She drove downtown and beheld what for her was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen.
“I drove around the block about six times so I could see the sign that said, ‘University of Minnesota,’” Stewart said. “It was a dream come true.”
Now 90, Stewart can tick off the names of dozens of legislators and community leaders who worked and fought over decades to make UMR a reality.
Back then, officials had to overcome heighted and fierce statewide resistance to the notion of adding another four-year campus to the state’s higher education offerings.
Critics of the idea viewed the higher education scene at the time as more than sufficient to serve the existing pool of students, which has only declined over time.
It was only a decade earlier from UMR’s founding, after all, that the regents closed its Waseca branch campus.
Education officials and students of existing institutions had to be assured that Rochester’s nascent school would not be a drain on precious resources and dollars.
It was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s support for the idea that broke the dam of opposition.
In the years since its founding, attitudes have evolved and changed toward this niche healthcare-focused school in Rochester. Concerns over UMR being a drag on the system have dissipated.
UMR is now viewed as a growth opportunity.
SOLVING THE ENROLLMENT PROBLEM
UMR started with an inaugural class in 2009 of 57 students. It now stands on the cusp of crossing the enrollment threshold of 1,000 students next year from the programs it offers.
And there are those who are urging it to grow faster.
At a board of regents meeting in February, Regent Darrin Rosha asked that very question.
He argued that UMR’s potential for growth could offset the thousands of students the state is losing every year from declining enrollment.
“I look at Minnesota still hemorrhaging a couple of thousand students a year, more going out than coming in for higher education,”
Rosha said. “I look at Rochester and say, ‘we could solve the problem just at that campus.’”
Rosha argued that UMR’s health care focus, combined with its partnership with Mayo Clinic and the learning experiences it offers students, created the potential to cast an international profile. UMR draws students primarily from the Midwest. Rosha’s point is that UMR could draw from a worldwide pool of students.
“I say, ‘Be bold.’ I say, ‘Make the investments,’”
Rosha added. “I think this is the future from a residential standpoint anyway for the university to grow and to really have an impact not just on Minnesota but on the world with the people that come out of the school.”
Another regent, Douglas Huebsch, urged UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell to consider “owning real estate” rather than creating facilities through leasing arrangements. UMR has relied on leasing and partnering with private entities to build a campus from scratch.
In other words, Huebsch was asking about the UMR’s plans to build its own permanent downtown campus.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
Once viewed as a dubious new entrant to the higher education scene, UMR is being cast as a potential savior. The applause and encouragement from regents, who represent districts across the state, suggests that the prospects for a permanent campus may be more favorable now than at any point in its short history.
UMR stands alone in the U system in terms of its needs: It needs more facilities and infrastructure to serve its growing student body.
The rest have too many facilities for the students they serve.
To be sure, it has always been part of UMR’s longrange plan to build a 10-acre college campus in southwest Rochester.
But its implementation has been kiboshed by unforeseen events. In 2019, UMR was on the verge of putting shovels in the ground. It had a partner in the Rochester YMCA. It had selected a developer.
But the plan was upended with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Y building shuttered soon afterward.
The plans for the proposed campus appeared frozen. Now signs are picking up that its prospects are brightening. The university has been buying property in the city’s southwest quadrant since 2009. And it continues to do so, the most recent purchase being the Running Room store between Broadway and First Avenue.
The U also has plans to buy the parking lot across from the old YMCA. And a developer has plans to build a seven-story apartment complex on the old Y site near the proposed campus.
Patrick Brama, a developer for real estate firm Enclave, said the development of the campus was a “partial factor” in its decision to move forward with the open-market apartment project.
“We expect a portion of our residents to be U of M students,” Brama said.
“Obviously, it will start with a minor portion to begin with, but as they build up the campus, we expect that portion to increase over time.”
Also, UMR has plans to work with a consultant, Sasaki & Associates, to develop a comprehensive facilities plan. The consultants will work through the summer and conclude their work with a facilities report that could include a recommendation to build the campus. That plan will then be presented to the regents sometime next year.
Carrell said any growth at UMR will require significant investment.
How much that would be is uncertain at the moment, but it would be significant. And it’s not just in facilities and buildings, classrooms and student spaces that investments need to be made if the Rochester school is to grow. More money would need to be spent for faculty and staff.
“It isn’t only the facilities,” Carrell said.
“We want to (grow) creatively and with partnerships.”
When UMR was founded as a four-year campus in 2006, one of its biggest challenges was building the infrastructure and facilities it needed with limited resources. From the beginning, it has relied on partnerships in the business community, including the late Gus Chaffoulias and his son, Andy, and Hal Henderson, to share the cost and benefits of building a campus.
That model, called public private partnership (PPP), has worked. It has led to creation of a sprawling downtown campus presence that is based on leasing property.
They include two top floors of Galleria at University Square and 318 Commons, a student residential building on First Avenue Southwest.
It includes both One Discovery Square and Two Discovery, part of the Destination Medical Center campus, for classrooms.
In another sign of anticipated growth, the U announced it was leasing eight floors at the DoubleTree by Hilton Rochester to be used for student housing. The lease starts in August of this year.
“We couldn’t do everything we’ve done so far if we hadn’t had partnerships,” Stewart said. “We have to house students. We can now put the whole freshman class in the DoubleTree.”
Carrell, who became UMR chancellor in 2018 and is only the school’s second leader, said she was heartened and encouraged by the regent’s unambiguously positive comments. She called them “wonderful” and “we need to deserve it everyday.”
But at times, Carrell sounded like a person attempting to pump the brakes on the more enthusiastic plans for UMR.
UMR’s most aggressive growth scenario is to expand into a 2,500-student school, more than twice its current size. But Rosha expressed disappointment it wasn’t shooting higher.
“I think we should be making more of an investment,” Rosha said at February’s regents meeting. “I think we should be really looking to increase this campus into a larger campus.”
Carrell told the regent that UMR stands ready to use that investment “very prudently” when and if it happens. But she also said the school wants to grow in a manner that sustains its quality. In addition to meeting workforce needs, the school has shown success in narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
“If there are those who are thinking about potential partnerships with the University of Minnesota here in Rochester, now is the time to be approaching us,” Carrell said.
For Stewart, one of UMR’s biggest cheerleaders, few things would be more satisfying than seeing the proposed campus take root and grow in downtown Rochester. Seeing it would probably rank up there with seeing the big “M” for the first time attached to the Galleria 16 years ago.
“I keep saying, ‘I want you to do this while I’m still here. I’m 90 years old,’” Stewart said.
But she also says the Rochester U will grow when the time is right.