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Originally published August 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 29, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Cities hunger for higher education

Those in the county with long memories say that The Evergreen State College, founded in 1969 in Olympia, was supposed to be located 120...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Town Hall meetings

State officials and the University of Washington are leading planning efforts to select a site and recommend an academic plan for a new college to serve north Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties. Two more public meetings will be held:

Sept. 26, 7 p.m.

Oak Harbor High School, Parker Hall,

950 N.W. Second Ave., Oak Harbor

Oct. 3, 7 p.m.

Comcast Arena at Everett Events Center, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett

Those in the county with long memories say that The Evergreen State College, founded in 1969 in Olympia, was supposed to be located 120 miles to the north, in Arlington.

The University of Washington Bothell campus, established by the Legislature in 1989, also was originally conceived to serve Snohomish County.

What happened, between recognition of the need for higher education in the region and the opening of those new state colleges elsewhere, can be summed up in one word: politics.

Now that the state has appropriated $4 million to site and plan for a University of Washington branch campus to serve the region of north Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties, politics is again trying to pull the compass needle its way.

Cities from Everett to Sedro-Woolley, Stanwood to Lake Stevens, hope to lure the potentially prestigious institution and major new employer. Depending on their municipal budgets, the cities are using strategies that include paid lobbyists and property consultants, a full-color prospectus and homemade buttons that say, "YES 4-Yr U."

Big political plum

But state leaders warn that jockeying among local politicians to land the new branch campus could jeopardize the state funding still needed to build and open the school.

"This isn't a done deal," said Deb Merle, higher-education policy adviser to Gov. Christine Gregoire. "The governor wants the momentum to be sustained. We've been talking about the educational needs in this region for 25 years. This is the time to not let anything get in the way."

Merle and other members of the governor's staff, along with Lee Huntsman, president emeritus of the UW, have been holding a series of more than a dozen meetings in the three-county area.

By Nov. 15, the planning team is supposed to recommend a site and draw up an academic profile of what could become the state's first polytechnic, a college that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math, but also provides a broad liberal-arts education. The working vision also includes a strong experiential-learning component where students tackle real-world problems in partnership with regional employers.

Classes for fall 2008

In fall 2008, the new college, for now dubbed UW North Puget Sound, or UW North, is supposed to offer its first upper-division courses at an interim location.

The tight timeline has made for particularly frenetic activity among the interested cities.

Everett has retained the two lobbyists it hired for the legislative session to promote two sites, one a former log yard on the Snohomish River, the other an area around Everett Station.

Marysville is promoting two parcels west of Interstate 5 and adjacent to Gissberg Twin Lakes County Park.

Sedro-Woolley boosters are recommending the former Northern State Hospital site in Skagit County, which is already owned by the state.

In all, 73 different properties in the three-county region have been submitted for consideration as the future location of UW North.

Martin Regge, the project manager for NBBJ, the Seattle firm leading the $1 million effort to evaluate and recommend a site, said his firm will be guided by the existing UW branch campuses. UW Tacoma is located in that city's historic downtown on a 46-acre site. The more suburban UW Bothell campus is on 130 acres, which includes about 60 acres of wetlands.

But Regge said more specific criteria will emerge only as the academic planning committee, headed by Huntsman, sketches in the details of degree programs, innovative ways to deliver those programs, and to what size the campus might ultimately grow.

So great is interest in the new college that about 175 people came in from a warm summer evening earlier this month to attend a public forum in Stanwood. Their enthusiasm was immediately echoed by Marty Brown, Gregoire's legislative director, who moderated the program.

"This is a big deal!" he said.

Stanwood notes traffic

Not surprisingly, many of the north-county residents at the town-hall meeting urged that the college be located north of Everett, north even of Marysville, to avoid freeway congestion and be more accessible to Skagit and Island county students.

"It's a nightmare," said Stanwood Mayor Dianne White, describing the traffic between Marysville and Everett, in an interview after the meeting.

Stanwood is promoting three properties west of Interstate 5, one a 367-acre site with views of Puget Sound and the Olympics and large enough to one day accommodate the dorms and sports fields the mayor said the college might eventually need. Beyond the site, White is also promoting a vision for the new college that would make it a model for sustainable energy and a place for research on eco-friendly technologies.

"It could be a self-sufficient, green campus with all these environmental projects for students," she said.

Stanwood spent $2,500 on a 30-page brochure promoting its now-rural sites, but the mayor says that's a pittance compared with the $91,000 Everett has spent since January on its two lobbyists and two consultants.

Everett fields team

Pat McLain, Everett's government-affairs director, said the city's two lobbyists will work in Olympia promoting Everett's proposed sites on the Snohomish River and at Everett Station. He said the city also hired a land-use consultant to craft Everett's site proposals and a former UW legislative liaison to guide the city's relations with the UW and the governor.

Two people working for Everett, lobbyist Len McComb and consultant Dick Thompson, are former directors of the state Office of Financial Management, which, with the UW, is directing the site-selection and academic-planning process for the branch campus.

Smaller cities in the county view Everett as the 800-pound gorilla, a rival whose financial resources and political muscle unfairly weights the site-selection process. But Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said his city's efforts are "fact-based" and "not heavy-handed."

With a town-hall meeting scheduled in Everett on Oct. 3, locals there will likely argue that the college should be in Everett because more people live nearby and would have to travel less on crowded highways, and the college could forge more partnerships with the city's aerospace, biotech and health-care industries.

The planning team says it will keep politics at arm's length.

"Of course Everett is spending more," said Merle, the governor's policy adviser. But she added, "We're trying to stay removed from the politics, to focus on what students need and let the planning process work."

Local leaders note that once the recommended sites and academic plan go to the Legislature, the cities and their representatives may start maneuvering all over again.

"Political jockeying? Is that something new?" asked Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. But Sells said the majority of legislators in the three-county region came together to win support for the $4 million college planning process. He believes they'll come together again to fund and launch UW North.

Site not biggest issue

Business leaders, even those based in Everett, say the fight over location threatens the more important work of ensuring that the new branch campus opens its doors.

"We can't let the politics of location get in the way of the goal to bring a new college here," said David Brooks, chief operating officer for Providence Everett Medical Center. Brooks recently hosted a meeting with the UW and state planning team for health-care providers in the three-county region.

Brooks praised the planning process under way as "thoughtful" and noted that Providence Everett currently has more than 200 openings for nurses, technicians and technologists. He said health-care training programs in the state are full and that existing community and four-year colleges can't easily add students because of the limits on state funding.

"If we're pressed now to find health-care workers, what will it be like in 20 years as the population ages?" he asked.

Deborah Knutson, president of the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County, also hosted a meeting with the planning team, this one for county aerospace and life-science business leaders. She said these firms have less stake in where the new college is located and more in the pressing need for science and technology graduates.

"The county needs these professionals. There aren't enough in the pipeline," she said.

Real-world emphasis

At each of these meetings, UW leaders have said that a defining quality of the new college will be its emphasis on giving students real-world problem-solving experience. Huntsman said the UW's Montlake campus in Seattle already has moved in that direction, with between 7,000 and 9,000 students now taking on projects in their fields.

At UW Bothell, science students do field studies on nearby North Creek.

Huntsman warns that the state won't be able to add math and science college graduates, even with a new branch college, if K-12 education isn't also improved. Currently, he said, few high-school graduates are prepared to do college-level work in those subjects.

Underlying all of the planning efforts, he said, is the state's inconsistent track record on higher-education funding. Huntsman noted that 15 years after they were first created, neither UW branch campus enrolls more than 2,000 students. He said that's not a function of student interest, but rather the state funding available to add faculty and courses.

"The financial support for education in this state has not been good," Huntsman said.

Pondering the impact

While support for a new campus in the north Snohomish County area has been strong, it hasn't been unanimous.

Jeff Pearce, whose family has lived in the Stanwood area for about 100 years, told the Stanwood forum that the pretty, rural college town of Davis, Calif., where he lived while going to graduate school, was spoiled by all of the bars, traffic and drunk students.

He urged the planning committee to choose a location in one of the county's more populated areas.

But at forums in Stanwood and Mount Vernon, most people voiced hopes for a university close to home, one to answer the state's need for engineers and computer scientists, but also to give their children the chance at a future that a college diploma can still bestow.

Jim Cummins, a retired educator from Arlington, told the planning team, "Make your vision for this university as big as the world. Make this something dynamic, something that we can all be proud of."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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