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Squamish university plans set back



Referendum on loan could delay the proposed opening of Canada’s first private university

The government giveth, the people taketh away.

Two weeks after the Sea to Sky University received official status from the provincial government, including the ability to grant degrees, Squamish voters pulled the rug out from under a proposed loan that will help the university cover the cost of off-site services.

On June 15, 1,516 Squamish District residents turned out to vote on a referendum over whether the district should provide the university with a $5 million revolving line of credit for the construction of roads, sewers and other services.

In exchange for the loan the university would agree to repay the district $7.76 million over the next 20 year. Part of that money would come from the sale of 960 housing units built on the 1,000 acres of land – a residential concession made by council to help pay for the construction of the university.

The SSU agreed to pay back at least $500,000 of the loan each year once the school and residential area was completed.

Prior to the referendum, the district council and the university had disagreed over the figures and the elements of the construction plan. The district claimed that the repayments would fall short of interest payments and other public works costs by approximately $1.7 million, leaving taxpayers on the hook for that money. The SSU, represented as the Howe Sound Education Foundation, said the shortfall would be around $250,000 because the district overestimated the amount of work required.

While the two sides were still arguing over which figures to use, the referendum on the loan authorization bylaw went ahead. The public voted 893 to 623 against the loan authorization bylaw.

While the turnout represents only 18 per cent of the eligible voters in Squamish, the District of Squamish stated in a release that it would not be borrowing money to fund the off-site infrastructure the university requires.

"While the District of Squamish may not be borrowing funds to finance the off site infrastructure required to service the University Lands, we do look forward to working with the Howe Sound Education Foundation and the timely opening of the university."

The referendum doesn’t derail the university plans but it could delay them.

According to project leader Peter Ufford, the scheduled opening of September 2004 could be pushed back.

According to Squamish District, the next step in the development process will be to conclude the construction financing agreement, and the projects that the district has already committed to funding. The district release also made it clear that the university has some work to do.

"We believe there are some challenges to be addressed by the Howe Sound Education Foundation including the University Business Plan and the ability of the university to pay for the infrastructure to be undertaken in support of the project."

The total construction cost of the campus will be in the range of $120 million, including $80 million in capital construction, $20 million in market land development and soft costs, and an additional $20 million in debt financing. Approximately 500 acres of the land will be used by the university, and another 300 acres will be used for market housing to finance the project.

The campus will include academic and administration buildings, activity support facilities, and student/faculty/staff residences.

The decision to locate the private, secular and non-profit university, the first of its kind in Canada, was made in December of 1998. Whistler and Nelson were also short-listed as candidates.

The school will serve between 800 and 1,200 undergraduate students, with 200 new students each year and a primary focus on the global community. Half the students are expected to be domestic and half international.

Like the Aspen Institute in Colorado, the new university will offer short-course programs in areas such as public administration and business administration through the Pacific Institute for Advanced Studies lectures. These will also be made available to the Squamish community.