ACC bond could include Leander campus

Trustees to determine size, scope and election timing in August

The Austin Community College board of trustees will decide in August whether to call a November bond election that could include $70 million for a new campus in Leander.

In June, a specially assembled bond advisory committee ranked construction of the Leander campus 10th among 32 capital improvement projects needed in the 7,000-square-mile Austin-area community college district. The committee recommended 11 top projects, which total nearly $500 million, as its highest priorities.

During at least two meetings before Aug. 26, the board must determine if a Nov. 5 bond election is desired, and, if so, what projects the proposal will include. Victor Villarreal, ACC board of trustees vice chairman and former Leander city councilman, said he is hopeful the committee's recommendations, including the Leander campus, will be on a ballot this fall as opposed to May or November 2014.

"The Leander campus is something that's been cultivated for years from the city's end and from the college's end. It just happens that this is the first time in 10 years we've had a bond that would go to public vote," he said. "Hopefully it will land on the bond, and hopefully we package the bond in a way that sets us up for success."

Leander campus

In 2009, ACC purchased a 100-acre property for about $12 million in Leander's transit-oriented development district after considering more than 20 sites, ACC board trustee Allen Kaplan said. The first phase of development will likely include utilities, roadways and two buildings where most of—if not all—60 core curriculum hours could be completed, he said.

"The Leander campus would be two very nice-size buildings, a lot of parking and infrastructure. We are responsible for doing some roads, water, wastewater and infrastructure," he said. "We believe that will be enough to have a 3,000- to 3,500-student campus with Phase 1 in Leander. Phases 2 and 3 are down the road."

Already overcrowded and growing

Construction of the Leander campus is needed to ease overcrowding at the Cypress Creek campus in Cedar Park, said Bill Mullane, executive director of facilities and construction at ACC. The campus was built to accommodate approximately 2,300 students but in fall 2012 had an enrollment of 5,352.

"The Cypress Creek campus has been overcrowded for as long as people can remember. Quite frankly, that is the biggest issue at that campus," he said. "The proposal to construct a campus in Leander should provide a great deal of relief relative to that particular issue."

The committee's recommendation also includes approximately $8.3 million in maintenance and upgrade projects at the Cypress Creek campus that, if placed on the ballot and approved, would bring the school up to current health and safety codes. A campus in Leander would allow space for renovations at the Cypress Creek campus as well as increase ACC's overall student capacity, said Neil Vickers, ACC vice president of finance and budget.

"The fact of the matter is, for the most part, we are at capacity or over capacity at almost all of our existing spaces. We need to build out some new capacity just so we can free up some space to do the work on these existing locations," he said. "If you don't do the Leander campus, it makes it that much more challenging to do the work needed at Cypress because we don't have any place to at least move some of the students."

Opposition and cost

At the July 1 board meeting, trustees expressed concern about voter sentiment regarding the size and scope of the proposed $500 million bond, which is expected to raise the ACC property tax rate 2.5 cents per $100 valuation once all bonds are sold. Some board members hoped to replace the Leander campus with items lower on the list, while others, including trustee John-Michael Cortez, said the bond should only include projects needed to meet health and safety requirements.

"I have a lot of hesitation with what we can put on a bond referendum that the community will support," he said. "In general, I think we should minimize this list to those things that we most desperately need at this point."

Timeline

If the board accepts the bond advisory committee's recommendation as is and voters approve the bond sale, construction of the Leander campus could begin within a few months after the election, Mullane said.

"Staff recommendation would be—and I think the bond committee would support this—to move on new space such as Leander as rapidly as possible so that we would have time available after new buildings open to get the renovations done at other campuses," he said. "If we don't do the new stuff first, then we are not going to be able to do the others."

Before the campus is constructed, ACC staff and trustees will meet with members of the community to determine what types of specialized programs would be of interest in Leander. Villarreal said he is hopeful the campus could open in 2016, bringing economic and social change to Leander.

"As soon as the Leander campus is approved by voters, I would imagine within the next six to nine months, you'll probably hear three to four announcements in the [transit-oriented development district] of global money coming in to invest and develop," he said. "There's an economic driver to that campus, but also that influence of higher education is an extremely powerful social investment. You're putting a campus in an area of town that has a likelihood of fewer college-going residents. That completely changes the social mindset of that part of the city. That's incredibly positive, and it's worth investing in regionally."