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Mesa debuts downtown center to lure additional colleges

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Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 3:24 pm

While Mesa has deals in place to bring two colleges to its downtown, it is laying the groundwork for three other institutions to open branch campuses easily and quickly.

The city is transforming an unused court building into the Mesa Center for Higher Education, which it plans to be a shared space for four colleges. The city unveiled the concept this week along with a rendering of a new facade and sign to advertise the building at 245 W. Second St.

Westminster College on Monday became the first institution to say it will open there in the fall of 2013.

Mesa considers the 53,000-square foot building an important part of its strategy to bring multiple colleges to its downtown. The building makes it easier to market the city and it lets the colleges reduce expenses by sharing things like a computer lab, said Bill Jabjiniak, Mesa’s economic development director.

The Mesa campus is the first branch campus for Westminster, which was founded in 1851 in Fulton, Mo. The building was important because the nonprofit liberal arts college is dependent on tuition to fund itself, Westminster President George “Barney” Forsythe said.

“That was critical,” he said. “The fact that there was a building here and opportunities to move into a facility so we didn’t have to invest in upfront infrastructure cost was absolutely critical to us.”

Westminster will lease about 10,000 square feet. Mesa expects the center can accommodate three other colleges. The city plans to renovate the building and allow the different colleges to share some functions. One amenity for potential users is laboratory space that was once the crime lab for the adjacent police station.

Forsythe said the approach to the Mesa center will help break down barriers that have traditionally separated colleges from their communities. He anticipates more collaboration with the city and colleges that will become Westminster’s neighbors.

“We saw this as an opportunity to try some new things in higher education,” Forsythe said.

Mesa has a $14 million budget to prepare downtown sites for the multiple colleges it wants to attract. The city originally anticipated the college center would open at the former Tri-City Community Center, 225 E. Main St. But in January, Benedictine University entered into negotiations to lease the entire 68,500-square foot building.

Mesa is in talks with other colleges, Mayor Scott Smith said. He expects to announce deals in the coming months with institutions that he said will fill niches not offered by the likes of Arizona State University, the University of Phoenix or A.T. Still University — all of which already have Mesa sites.

“We don’t believe these colleges are competitive,” Smith said. “We believe they’re complementary.”

Mesa owns several vacant or underused downtown buildings, and 60 acres of vacant land. The city will consider using those sites for other colleges that want to come in or to let colleges expand with stand-alone locations as they expand operations.

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