Midland U. to make official bid today for Dana campus

Monday, April 08, 2013

Article By World-Herald Bureau   |   Leslie Reed

 

LINCOLN — Citing “explosive” enrollment growth that has their landlocked Fremont campus bursting at its seams, Midland University officials announced that they would submit a bid this morning for the vacant Dana College campus in Blair.

“The opportunity to acquire a complete college campus that is central to the vitality of a great Nebraska community is incredibly rare,” Midland University Board Chairman Gary Perkins said Wednesday.

The private college did not disclose the bid amount. Midland spokesman Nate Neufind said that the funds for the purchase were privately raised and that Midland does not plan to incur debt to make the purchase or to operate the campus.

Midland officials plan to approach Blair community leaders and Dana alumni to raise additional funds to make repairs and renovations at the Blair campus, which has been vacant since Dana closed in 2010.

“Breathing new life into the Dana campus and the Blair community will take a partnership and cannot be achieved by one institution alone,” Midland President Ben Sasse said.

Blair Mayor Jim Realph said people in his community would be thrilled to have Midland take over the campus.

“For us, it's the ideal thing,” he said. “It will bring us back as a college town.”

Mark Wagner, the court-appointed receiver overseeing the effort to find a buyer for the 151-acre Dana campus, said Wednesday that he had not yet seen an offer from Midland and could not comment on it.

“Nothing is a done deal,” said Wagner, who is director of operations at Cordes & Co. in Greenwood Village, Colo.

The asking price for the campus had been $5.9 million. Bondholders, represented by Wells Fargo Bank as trustee, held $13.73 million in outstanding debt for the campus.

Midland officials estimate that it will be 30 to 60 days before the offer is accepted. Fall 2015 would be the earliest students might return to the Blair campus.

No decisions have been made about what academic programs might be established at the Blair campus. Midland officials pledged that the Fremont campus would retain all of its current academic and athletic offerings.

Only last year, it appeared that the Blair campus would become home to a renewable energy institute founded by Allen Baer of Chelsea, Vt. Baer's $5.9 million purchase offer had been accepted, but the deal fell through last fall when Baer was unable to raise the funds.

The Renewable Nations Institute would have trained top undergraduate and graduate students to support national planning for a transition to a low-carbon economy in the United States and developing countries.

Realph, the mayor, said that after Baer's deal fell through, Blair leaders grew increasingly concerned the campus would become a white elephant and a liability for his community.

“It is a college campus,” he said. “It isn't going to be very good for anything else. There were a lot of people coming to town and looking at it. The problem is they didn't have any money.”

Wagner said Baer has remained interested in the property and is among “multiple” potential buyers who expressed some interest. Wagner declined to name or describe the prospects.

Baer said Wednesday that he has a fallback plan with the campus of a Massachusetts school that recently lost accreditation.

Midland's ability to purchase the campus may indicate a sharp turnaround from its recent financial woes. As recently as last year, Midland had been placed on heightened cash monitoring by the U.S. Department of Education because of comparatively low financial composite scores based on primary reserves, equity and net income. The monitoring requirement was lifted Feb. 1, based on a strong 2012 audit.

Since Sasse took over as president in 2009, campus enrollment has come roaring back.

Enrollment dropped to 592 students in fall 2009, its lowest level in recent history. By fall 2012, it had grown 85 percent, to 1,097 students.

Part of the enrollment increase results from Sasse's decision to offer enrollment to Dana students, who were displaced by its sudden closure after the college's accreditors rejected a buyout bid from a for-profit school in 2010.

More than 300 Dana students accepted Midland's offer, which included free housing, transfer of all credits and honoring Dana scholarships for the 2010-11 year, a move that some observers say likely strained Midland's finances. This fall, Midland enrolled 484 new students, the largest freshman class in its history.

Midland aims to grow to 1,900 students in coming years but has limited ability to expand its campus, located not far from Fremont's downtown district.

Sasse said Midland is bucking the trends for other colleges and universities in Nebraska, where combined enrollment has declined since 2009. To attract more freshmen, Midland has added seven varsity sports since 2009. It now has 25 varsity programs and more than 600 athletes.

Midland instituted a four-year graduation guarantee — and an intense advising and support program to back it up. It expanded its performing-arts programs and student organizations and improved its residence halls.

The Blair campus is remarkably similar to the Fremont campus. Both Dana and Midland have Lutheran roots. Although Dana was located on 150 acres in scenic hills near Blair, its 14 or so buildings are consolidated in a 30-acre area.

Midland also has about 14 buildings, on a 25-acre campus.

“This move makes sense on so many levels,” Sasse said.

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