Expensive St. Cloud State Building is Nearly Empty

Updated: 10/18/2013 7:40 AM KSTP.com By: Cassie Hart

A new building at St. Cloud State University is the most expensive ever built on a campus in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MNSCU).

The $45 million Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility (ISELF) is a sparkling and high-tech addition to the SCSU campus. It's also still nearly empty two months after a ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony held back in August.

"Typically in a new building we do a grand opening somewhere three or four months after we've ramped up our activities," says Dan Gregory, interim dean of the College of Science and Engineering. "We did it very early and we did that strategically."

Gregory says the many empty labs and two nearly empty floors of the building are not a cause for concern. He calls it a "non-traditional" educational facility that will eventually feature private companies in the St. Cloud area doing work in the building alongside SCSU engineering and chemistry students and professors. He says they held the grand opening early to signal to potential corporate partners the building is open for business.

Although Gregory says they're close to having some corporate clients sign on to occupy space, no final deals are in place. "Not specifically to use the building, but we have projects we have signed agreements on," he says.

A conservative blogger and frequent critic of spending at SCSU says taxpayers are getting "ripped off" after spending $45 million from the 2011 bonding bill to pay for ISELF. Gary Gross, writing in his "Let Freedom Ring" blog, features pictures of many empty spaces in the building he says were taken by an unidentified professor who questions the building's use. Gross blames university leaders "for selling legislators a grand vision that they didn't think through."

University officials say they're not concerned about using the building to its maximum potential. They acknowledge having to work out some problems with key ventilation systems. They're also working on installing security systems that private companies would require to safeguard their research.

Ned Tabat, CEO of Semaphore Scientific, says his company is close to signing an agreement with the university. His business card already features the address of the ISELF building. "There are capabilities here for doing advance nano-fabrication which is the cornerstone of some of the devices we're developing," Tabat says. His company is also hiring interns from SCSU.

The CEO of another St. Cloud company, Brad Goskowicz of Microbiologics, says his company has been working with university professors and students for several years, even before ISELF. They'll likely expand that relationship. "They have expertise in areas that we don't have and that helps us grow a lot faster," says Goskowicz.

Still, Gross is unconvinced. He says sources of his at SCSU tell him "it will be at least two years to get this (building) fully operational." And with declining enrollment at the university, he says "I'm kind of skeptical of where the money is going to come from."

Gregory acknowledges overall enrollment is down, but he says enrollment in science and engineering programs is up nearly 10 percent in recent years. The university says the ISELF building will be a much busier place in the spring 2014 semester and will eventually live up to its promise.