Clark College acquires land for north county campus

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Clark College has acquired 59 acres near the Ridgefield Interstate 5 junction that will allow it to take root in north Clark County with educational programs within a decade, college President Bob Knight told The Columbian on Wednesday.

The satellite campus, to be named after the Boschma family that donated and sold land for the college expansion, will extend the reach of the vital institution to an area that increasingly is poised for growth.

The campus would start with one building as early as 2020 and could eventually grow to include four to six buildings, positioning the 81-year-old community college to accommodate growth, Knight said Wednesday in advance of his planned announcement at the Vancouver community college’s annual donor appreciation dinner.

“Everything shows the growth is in the Ridgefield and Battle Ground area,” said Knight, the college’s president since 2007. “We’re being as visionary as we can.” State legislation has already authorized $38.48 million for the project’s design and construction.

The Ridgefield land tract, slightly northeast of the freeway’s junction with Pioneer Street, was purchased by the nonprofit Clark College Foundation for $5.67 million from the Boschma Family LLC, owned by former dairy farmers Hank and Bernice Boschma. The Boschmas also made a $3.1 million land donation as part of the deal. The elderly couple, who live near Bellingham, told college officials they wanted to support expanding education in the region, Knight said. He said the Boschmas, who currently lease a portion of the site to another farmer, originally emigrated from Holland to Ridgefield and took their American citizenship tests at Clark College. One of their daughters attended Clark College.

“They epitomize the American Dream. We’re naming the campus after them because of their generous donation,” Knight said of the Boschmas. The north county campus will be known as Clark College at Boschma Farms.

Knight said if the Boschmas hadn’t donated a portion of the land price, Clark’s satellite campus might not have landed in Ridgefield, where properties command higher prices near the newly completed I-5 interchange. In addition to Ridgefield, college officials also negotiated with owners of land tracts in Battle Ground, which might have been cheaper but lacked freeway visibility.

“If we couldn’t have worked out a deal with these owners (the Boschmas), we’d have gone back to the Battle Ground area,” Knight said. The Ridgefield site is half the size of Clark College’s main campus near downtown Vancouver.

Ridgefield officials said landing the satellite campus supports the town’s long-term goal of attracting high-paying, knowledge-based jobs to the city, poised to become Clark County’s fastest-growing community. Others see the college as a catalyst for the city, now at the crossroads of trying to balance new development with its small-town character.

“It’s fantastic,” said Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow. “This is going to be a real boost for the north county area, especially Ridgefield.”

The town doubled its land mass in 1998 by annexing 1,846 acres of farmland near the junction into the city’s boundaries, saying at the time that it could possibly attract a major employer the size of WaferTech. The strategy appears to have worked. Ridgefield has successfully drawn a mix of mostly warehouse and distribution or light manufacturing employers to locate near the junction, including everything from a giant Dollar Tree distribution center to a vitamin maker.

Developing for a college campus could make the area more appealing to businesses offering higher-wage jobs, acknowledged Steve Stuart, Ridgefield’s city manager since April and a former Clark County commissioner.

“The struggle is how to make it all fit,” he said. “That will be our challenge.”

Stuart pointed out the city has solved many of the infrastructure problems that for years plagued land development near the junction, such as extending sewer treatment services to the area. This month, the Clark Regional Wastewater District Board of Commissioners approved construction of a new wastewater pipeline connecting Ridgefield to the Salmon Creek treatment plant, work expected to start this summer.

“The hurdles are gone,” Stuart said. “The planning is just starting to come together.”

Officials in Battle Ground congratulated the college on its final decision, despite the news that the larger city did not end up landing the campus.

“Battle Ground was happy to have the opportunity to work with Clark College to find an appropriate location for their north county campus,” said John Williams, city manager. “They will continue to provide excellent service to the growing Battle Ground community.”

The Boschmas stirred up emotion in Ridgefield in 1999 and 2000 after they donated their entire 170-acre tract to the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, which announced that it wanted to build 1,580 townhomes on the land, in spite of objections by neighbors and local government officials. In the end, the Shoalwaters weren’t able to follow through with that plan. The Boschmas sued them and got the property back. Hank Boschma said at the time that he had been guaranteed a share of the profits from the townhouse deal. He could not be reached for comment for this story.

Clark College has been searching for property since late 2011 to develop a campus for the county’s northern-most population, with programs in the health care field and some general education courses. Knight expects the campus to gradually relieve the demand on Clark’s main Vancouver campus at 1933 Fort Vancouver Way. The future north county campus also would serve students in the Running Start program, which allows high school students to earn college credit.

The first, 70,000-square-foot building would accommodate about 1,000 students, he said. But Knight doesn’t expect an enrollment of that size right away.

“It will start out with a few hundred and grow over time,” he said. “It won’t be filled overnight.” He said the college may work with a retail developer to construct retail services needed by students.

Knight has said the Legislature would fund the work over the next six years, on the expectation that Clark’s enrollment will continue to grow despite a recent decline in full-time students, including this year’s winter quarter when an enrollment of 13,237 students represented a 7.2 percent decline from 14,187 students enrolled a year earlier.

Enrollment in Running Start has grown from fewer than 1,000 students five years ago to nearly 1,450 students, 17 percent of Clark’s full-time students, according to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

In addition to its central campus, Clark College operates two satellite sites — Clark Center, which opened in 2006 on Washington State University Vancouver’s Salmon Creek campus, and an east Vancouver location at Columbia Tech Center, which opened in 2009.

In developing near the junction, Ridgefield officials also plan to keep an eye on its fragile natural environment, home to the 5,000-acre Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, said the town’s mayor, Onslow.

“A lot of people realize what a jewel we have here,” he said.

Onslow said the town’s population is expected to grow from about 6,000 people now to about 20,000 residents over the next eight years. He also said housing developers are rapidly filling the town’s single-family subdivisions.