CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University leaders are in the “good kind” of “uncharted territory,” said Governmental Affairs Director John Charles, as they plan for the 2020 budget year, beginning July 1.
The Illinois legislature made good on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s commitment to reinvest in higher education, approving a 5% increase in every state university’s operating budget, plus billions for university maintenance and new facilities, in the first major Illinois capital bill in a decade. Pritzker signed the bill Wednesday.
At SIU Carbondale, the state will provide $83 million to renovate and add on to the Communications Building, which houses the College of Mass Communications and Media Arts, the theater and communications studies departments, WSIU-TV, the WSIU-FM radio studios and the student newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
The updates will include new classroom and auditorium space, laboratory rooms and digital post-production suites, according to plans shared by SIUC.
The university received $4.255 million to plan and design the 60,000-square-foot addition in 2009, but got no construction money, once plans were ready.
Now SIUC will receive new funding to update the plans and then work with the Capital Development Board, which oversees construction projects at state-funded facilities, to pick a general contractor, said SIUC spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith.
Another $56 million is promised to the university for capital improvements, which will mostly be deferred maintenance, Goldsmith said, including upgrades to sewer and water lines, heating and air conditioning systems, elevators and fire alarms.
Included in the sum are “re-appropriations” of funds promised to the university in previous budgets, but never delivered, Charles said.
That includes $2.54 million for new and renovated greenhouses for the colleges of Agriculture and Science.
That money was committed to the university in 2015, but was never paid out, as the state budget impasse halted major infrastructure spending.
The delay has left some students doing their greenhouse work in a 10-by-15-foot room outfitted with LED grow lights in the Ag building.
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There was hope the Rauner administration might fund the project this year, as the former governor’s budget included $834 million in capital appropriations, and the greenhouses were at the top of SIUC’s priority list.
However, infrastructure money is disbursed gradually and at the state’s discretion, as revenue from taxes and bond sales comes in.
The Rauner administration gave SIUC $1.25 million to fix roofs on Neckers Hall, the Engineering building, Pulliam Hall and the university’s performance venue, Shryock Auditorium, last year, but it didn’t fund the greenhouses.
Now, university leaders across the state wonder what will get first priority in Pritzker’s capital plan.
“There are projects that have been pending a long time, including some that never got funded from the last capital bill,” Charles said. “But there are also projects that are shovel-ready right now, and there’s an argument for getting those started as soon as possible.”
Capital funding will be disbursed on a “project by project basis,” said Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh.
IDOT, for example, is “prioritizing based on readiness, engineering preparedness and critical life safety need,” she added.
In some cases, costs on long-awaited projects have gone up.
The greenhouses, which were first estimated at $3.6 million, are now expected to cost around $5 million, with steel prices up and greenhouse technologies like lighting growing more expensive, according to Karen Midden, interim dean of the College of Ag.
With SIUC slated to receive the same $2.54 million appropriation it requested years ago, the College of Ag must now cover a bigger portion of the total project.
“We will make it a top priority,” Midden said, working with donors and the university to meet costs. “This is critically important to properly educating our students for today's world.”
With architectural plans still mostly ready-to-go, Midden and other university leaders hope the state will feel the same sense of urgency.