As north Clark County grapples with growth, Clark College is emerging as a key player in how that region will look and feel for decades to come.
The reason: the popular two-year college is racing ahead of that growth to establish a north or central county satellite campus that Battle Ground, Ridgefield, and other communities are fighting to attract. Competition for the new campus, in a county starved for an infusion of economic activity has become one of the region's hottest real estate races.
Public records, obtained by The Columbian, reveal new details about the inner workings of a deal to locate such a campus. Those records show that the college signed an exclusive agreement to negotiate with PeaceHealth over a deal to build a health sciences-focused campus on property the Vancouver-based health care giant owns in Ridgefield. And college officials took a tour, arranged by PeaceHealth, of a mixed-use, transit-friendly and high-tech site in Gresham, Ore., to glimpse what could be if the two parties do a land deal.
But twists and turns abound as the college seeks to strike a deal soon.
In an e-mail response to questions from The Columbian, Clark College President Bob Knight said the college has identified a preferred site and hopes to launch negotiations in the next 30 days. He declined to name the location. The college has notified PeaceHealth that it wants to terminate the exclusive agreement between the two parties, set to expire at the end of this month, Knight said.
"We want the ability to negotiate with additional property owners at this time," said Knight, who was on vacation. "The college anticipates it will still be able to maintain its strategic partnership with PeaceHealth even if the college does not end up purchasing property from PeaceHealth. We still intend to build a health sciences campus."
Knight said he expects the college to work "very closely" with PeaceHealth "as we both build new facilities in north county regardless of who Clark College purchases land from."
The impact of the college's decision cannot be overstated, experts say. The new campus will influence the economy, and change the way communities in north and central Clark County manage traffic and land-use patterns.
The college expects its planned campus "will spur economic growth in the region," Knight acknowledged. "We have heard this from many of (the) landowners we have spoken to."
It's not clear whether the college will embrace some of the ideas it is exploring for a campus that include retail and other non-educational uses. But experts say that colleges, whether urban or suburban, are moving in that direction.
"There are significant benefits to mixing land uses," said Thomas Brennan, who runs the Portland office of the transportation planning firm Nelson-Nygaard, which has worked on campus projects. Mingling buildings and linking them to efficient transportation can reduce car trips, and serve the demanding demographic of students and young workers who'd like to spend less time driving, Brennan said.
'Not available elsewhere'
Bob Williamson, Clark College's vice president of administrative services, said the college is examining five different locations.
Three of the sites in play are known, with two in Ridgefield, including the PeaceHealth proposal, and one in Battle Ground. Another competitor in Ridgefield is a tract on the southeast
quadrant of the Ridgefield interchange being marketed by Barry Cain of Tualatin, Ore.-based Gramor Development.
"Clark College is a really special institution for Clark County and they're talking about a large campus that will be significant for years to come," Cain said. "It's a big, big deal. Hopefully, Ridgefield will get it."
The Battle Ground parcel is 48 acres slated to be included in the city's urban growth boundary. It's on the northwest quadrant of the intersection of Northeast 249th Street and Dublin Road, north of the city. Battle Ground officials say they haven't heard from Clark College since last summer. "We have not ruled out Battle Ground" for a campus, Williamson said.
Battle Ground city officials cede no ground to their competitors, saying they've got more population and more amenities to support a new Clark College campus.
In fact, both Battle Ground and Ridgefield have submitted reams of information and proposals, including population projections, and water, sewer, land-use and transportation costs and plans, for the college to review.
The college has access to $38.48 million from the state's capital budget to pay for pre-design, design and construction of a 70,000-square-foot building. College officials have said they'd want plenty of room to grow beyond that. No money has been earmarked yet to purchase the land.
Knight and his staff are responsible for making a recommendation to the college's Board of Trustees, which will decide what property to purchase. The college's fundraising arm, the Clark College Foundation, will act as the purchaser. Public documents show PeaceHealth's proposal, as outlined by its president, Alan Yordy, has held more than its share of the college's attention.
Yordy has proposed establishing a 90-acre Clark College satellite campus in Ridgefield north of PeaceHealth's planned health care complex. Under that proposal, PeaceHealth would sell about 30 acres of its 75-acre parcel -- located just off Interstate 5 in Ridgefield -- to the college. That 30 acres would then be combined with about 60 acres of land "owned primarily by the Lang and Bloemke families," according to a letter Yordy wrote to the college.
In January 2012, the college and PeaceHealth signed a "memorandum of understanding" to study such a land deal. Under that agreement, the college has been negotiating with PeaceHealth affiliate Discovery Pointe Medical Center LLC to build a Ridgefield campus "focused on its health sciences curriculum …"
The college "believes that a location adjacent to (PeaceHealth services) would provide opportunities not available elsewhere," according to the agreement.
Indeed, a deal with PeaceHealth could help Clark College burnish and expand its nursing program. The commuter college's difficult-to-enter, at-capacity nursing program has been known to drive students to seek education at schools such as Washington State University Vancouver, Lower Columbia College in Longview and Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore.
'A strong sense of community'
(Troy Wayrynen/The Columbian)
However, as Knight indicated, the college is ending its exclusive arrangement with PeaceHealth to negotiate with more property owners. PeaceHealth officials said they received word Thursday that Clark College would opt out of its exclusive discussions on a property deal.
But PeaceHealth isn't shy about trying to persuade Clark College to purchase its land for a mixed-use project. "PeaceHealth believes its Discovery Pointe Medical Center site … provides a unique opportunity for creation of a connected complex combining medical services, educational facilities, and retail space in a location convenient for central and north Clark County residents," the health care nonprofit said in a Thursday statement to The Columbian.
In recent months PeaceHealth has gone as far as showing the college what its planned satellite campus could look like if it was integrated with the health care complex and retail facilities planned by PeaceHealth as part of its Discovery Pointe Medical Center project.
Documents show PeaceHealth is working with CenterCal, a California retail developer, on Discovery Pointe.
CenterCal has experience in integrating college and commercial development. PeaceHealth's real estate partner developed Gresham Station, part of a larger, mixed-use, transit-oriented development in Gresham, Ore.
It includes Mt. Hood Community College's Bruning Center for Allied Health, a state-of-the-art facility that houses the college's nursing program.
Not surprisingly, PeaceHealth wanted Clark College to become familiar with CenterCal and, in April 2012, it arranged for top college officials to join CenterCal officials for a tour of the Gresham site.
PeaceHealth couldn't contain its excitement.
"It should not go unnoticed that the Mt. Hood (Community College) building at Gresham Station is called 'The Bruning Center,'" Larry Cohen, system director of growth and development at PeaceHealth, wrote in an April 10, 2012, email to Knight and other officials. "It is named for Fred Bruning (the CenterCal CEO) and his wife! I share this as you will be meeting with Mr. Bruning, and I wanted you to understand that he has a strong sense of community and supports education activity. The SIM lab that is at Gresham has been used by HARVARD and others, too!"
Several weeks after the tour of Gresham Station, the college and PeaceHealth exchanged emails discussing a sale price for a portion of PeaceHealth's property.
It's not clear what happened next.
What is clear, however, is that Knight started to back away from PeaceHealth. "I need to meet with PeaceHealth and let them know that their property is not one of our top three choices because we need to work with other owners around it to get enough property and because of the cost of bringing utilities to the site," Knight wrote in a July 12, 2012, email to Jada Rupley, chairwoman of Clark College's Board of Trustees.
Yet Knight told The Columbian last week that the "PeaceHealth property is still in play."
Williamson, the college's vice president of administrative services, also says a deal with PeaceHealth is still a possibility. Although the college did initially see challenges in acquiring properties surrounding the PeaceHealth site, he said, it still views the health care company's site as "a very viable option." And the potential to team up with PeaceHealth also makes the site attractive, Williamson said.
'Just about anything'
The communities affected by Clark College's ultimate decision are gunning for the satellite campus.
"They're pretty close to the vest about it, with reason," Ron Onslow, Ridgefield's mayor, said of the college's search. He understands the reason. "If I was going to go out and buy some land, I certainly wouldn't say 'I'm interested in this piece of land, can you jack the price up?'"
Onslow, who serves on Clark College's Culinary Arts Advisory Committee, said Ridgefield has major advantages, including a new freeway overpass and a growing population. "We're willing to do just about anything they want to get them here," he said.
But Battle Ground boosters say that, despite Ridgefield's location right on the interstate, its population of barely 5,000 people hardly compares with more populous Battle Ground, home to nearly 18,000 residents.
The town is 15 minutes from I-5 off the state Highway 502 exit. It is home to a wide range of restaurants, stores and offices that serve north Clark County communities such as Ridgefield, Yacolt, Venersborg, Hockinson, Brush Prairie, Dollars Corner, Orchards and La Center, noted Robert Maul, Battle Ground's community development director.
"Our service area includes upwards of 80,000 people," Maul said.
He and Battle Ground City Manager John Williams met with college officials last summer to propose a north county campus location on 48 acres earmarked for addition to the city's urban growth area. The site is surrounded by another 100 acres of vacant land zoned for commercial use.
Maul said the city has not heard back from the college since the summer presentation. "If the mission of the college is to serve north county students long-term, we're very well-positioned," he said.
Eric Fuller, a Vancouver commercial real estate broker, said a mixed-use development — bracketed by a college campus — is a valid concept, "even if it is a phased-in development that starts with Clark College as the anchor."
Fuller gave Ridgefield a slight edge in the competition for a new campus, saying properties close to I-5 offer developers and potential tenants strong transportation access and visibility.
Jon Roberts, an Austin, Texas-based consultant who oversaw the development of a new economic development plan for Clark County, said today's college campuses are evolving from models that only house academics, dorms, libraries and offices to settings that may also harbor health clinics, ground-floor retail space and even business research labs. Clark College and PeaceHealth could easily tailor a partnership around the school's nursing program, Roberts said. He cited Texas State University's campus in Round Rock, Texas, as an example. The area includes mixed-use neighborhoods, corporate sites and Seton Hospital, Austin's largest medical provider.
However, not all mixed-use developments are resounding successes, Roberts said. The University of Oklahoma's Tech Park, for example, has struggled to attract tenants, he said.
"It's really important that all the players have realistic goals in mind and have a sense of what the market can bear," Roberts said. "That's absolutely critical."
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