Come July, the campus of the former University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee at Washington County will be empty.
In the face of declining enrollments, Jay Rothman, president of the Universities of Wisconsin, made an abrupt decision to shut down the 80-acre campus at the end of the current semester, along with shutting a similar two-year campus in Fond du Lac. Rothman never visited either of the two-year campuses to consult with the local people who had poured support into their existence for more than five decades.
Had he visited West Bend, Rothman (pictured right) would have observed a charming and functional education institution that had propelled thousands of mostly young students into productive and satisfying education and career paths. Had he been more innovative and creative, he would have learned about available options to keep two-year liberal arts education alive in Washington County. He didn’t.
In the wake of his diktat from the top of Van Hise Hall in Madison, the college complex in the heart of the Kettle Moraine topography will be abandoned. It will be a sad sight.
The community had stepped up for five expansions after the campus opened in 1968.
Extinct will be administrative offices, lecture hall, classrooms, gymnasium, fitness center, cafeteria, and theater that was home to student and community productions.
The repurposing of the campus will be tricky business. At a recent post-mortem meeting with educational leaders, Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann reported that the county had received a bunch of expressions of interest in the property. But he added that the proposals were underwhelming. So there are no active options for use of the campus.
There are a number of questions that will arise during the complicated disposal of the property:
- Who really owns the campus? In a deal in 2016, the county stepped forward to take over full ownership from the City of West Bend, which had been in partnership with the county, in exchange for the city taking over Ridge Run Park. Both properties had once been part of the Pick family holdings. Legal documents over that history are not completely clear, so ownership will have to be ironed out.
- Does UWM have a lease or contract for use of the campus? If so, there will have to be some kind of severance agreement between the county and UWM.
- What is the highest and best use of the campus? Just its budget was about $3 million, much of it for salaries. A university campus is an economic development prize. We will lose its economic impact. Will the new owner or owners have an equivalent economic impact?
- Cultural organizations in the county have a long tradition of using the theater for local productions. Will accommodations be made for them?
- Will the property be sold as a whole or will it be subdivided? Some of the southwest side of the property contains rolling Kettle Moraine hills and dips. There are some old trails back there.
- How much is the campus worth on the open market?
There are plenty of ideas floating around for uses of the facility. For example, the city recreation department has been using the gymnasium for pickleball.
Pete Rettler has commented that there is a possibility of Catholic high school, but nothing firm has ever been stated publicly on that concept.
Could part of the property be added to Ridge Run Park?
The West Bend School District once expressed some interest in using the modern lab space that was donated by national banking leader and West Bend native, Paul Collins, in 2001. Would other K-12 districts be interested in offering classes for dual credits in the facility?
It is still very early to make any decisions regarding the disposition of the property, and there is an outside chance that the legislature will come up with a concept of community colleges across the state that could in some way use some of the local facilities.
Long and short, the community has a big challenge to figure out a replacement for an institution and property that has served us all well for many years. Community leaders were very creative in 1968 when they established the University of Wisconsin-Washington County. They will need to be equally creative this time around.
Schoemann may want to create a task force of experts in economic development and real estate to figure the best way forward. They could brainstorm for creative uses of the soon-to-be-vacant campus:
- An entrepreneurial startup center, a smaller version of the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center at UWM?
- A community activities center, including theater?
- A new home for the Chamber of Commerce and Washington County Economic Development Corporation?
- A nimble non-profit college campus?
- A larger nursing education campus?
Let’s get creative.