A recent decision by Mesa Community College and Mesa to go forward on a plan to build a downtown campus with or without a bond issue represents a major change — but officials are not offering an explanation for the sudden reversal.
MCC President Larry Chistiansen has said repeatedly in interviews and during meetings that the project was tied to a successful bond issue election on Nov. 2.
In the past few days, though, that has changed.
Why? No one is saying. But school and city officials clearly are taking the next steps.
They have called a special meeting Tuesday in Tempe so the Mesa City Council and the Maricopa Community College District can vote on a memorandum of understanding. Meetings between elected bodies are unusual and nearly always ceremonial.
But the meeting could prove significant.
A successful vote would allow the city and MCC to start negotiating a detailed, binding agreement months before the November election without an apparent alternate funding source.
There is no doubt, however, that officials would prefer to have the bond issue.
With it, the project would be finished in three to five years. Without it, the project could face significant delays — and some have questioned whether the project could move forward at all.
"The colleges could not afford to do this if the bond does not pass," said Rick DeGraw, marketing director for the district, in a recent interview with the Tribune.
Last week, Christiansen said the school is not in a foot race, and his goal is to provide additional access in a downtown campus in the next five years.
MCC wants the bond issue so it can pay for construction of a specialized building where advanced technology research and classes would take place, said Leah Palmer of MCC’s Center for Public Policy and Service.
Pinny Sheoran, director of MCC’s Business and Industry Institute, denied that the college has reversed its stance. The school’s position has always been to build a presence in downtown Mesa because that is what the community wants, she said.
The school won’t pull out of the project if voters reject the bond issue, Sheoran said.
On Nov. 2, county voters will consider Proposition 401, which calls for the issuance of nearly $950 million in bonds for the college district. The money would be spread among the district’s 10 colleges, and about $10 million would be for the Mesa project.
Officials are worried the ballot measure could fail for a couple of reasons.
First, it would create a tax increase to finance the bonds. The tax bill for property with an assessed value of $100,000 would go up about $16 a year.
Second, the measure is on a packed ballot. Aside from electing a president, U.S. representatives and state lawmakers, county voters will consider a sales tax extension for transportation, referendum and initiative issues, and a host of local questions.
Voters tend to give up before reaching the bottom of long ballots.
Dick Mulligan, the Mesa’s city economic development director, said the school’s commitment to move forward underscores the importance of having a downtown campus.
Mesa is competing for talented people and new investment, and one of the biggest factors is a quality work force, which is directly tied to educational facilities, he said.
"I don’t think anyone is going to want to give up on this concept," Mulligan said. "I think this is critically important to Mesa’s future."
Mesa and MCC began talking more than two years ago about pooling resources to create a downtown campus.
Details continued to emerge last week about an ambitious and complicated plan to bring together the private and public sectors.
One of the main focuses of the downtown campus would be high technology.
The institute, where technology and training courses are offered, and the MCC Center for Public Policy and Service would be located downtown.
Overall, the plan would expand MCC’s presence downtown from about 1,300 students to 10,000 students.
The circumstances surrounding the decision to move forward are wrapped in mystery.
When the Tribune first obtained a copy of the memorandum of understanding, the city sought to delay any publication until Monday. When the Tribune declined, the city issued a news release.
The council is interrupting its monthlong summer break for Tuesday’s meeting.