The Northwest College Board of Trustees held a town hall meeting Tuesday to get public input on a master housing plan that the college will use to guide campus housing projects for the next 10 or …
The Northwest College Board of Trustees held a town hall meeting Tuesday to get public input on a master housing plan that the college will use to guide campus housing projects for the next 10 or more years.
A couple dozen members of the community attended the meeting, and almost all the comments involved concerns over one component of the proposed plan: the selling of Trapper Village West.
The subdivision is located at the far northwestern edge of Powell and currently houses students and faculty of NWC. As enrollments have declined in the past decade — on top of falling state support — the administration found itself trying to maintain more housing than the student housing fees support. Slimmer budgets also resulted in too much deferred maintenance on campus.
Last year, the college hired experts in higher education housing to develop forecasts for the college’s housing demand and plan for the best way to respond, should the forecasts be accurate.
“We felt like we weren’t looking far enough in the distance to be proactive. Rather, we were finding ourselves in a reactive mode,” explained Board President Dusty Spomer.
The most immediate actions in the draft plan — proposed in the next five years — are the renovation of Trapper Main apartments, refreshing Ashley Hall, demolishing the currently unused Cody Hall and divesting of Trapper Village West.
After five years, the plan proposes converting Lewis and Clark Hall into apartments in anticipation of a rise in enrollment by non-traditional students, which are typically older people with families and full-time jobs. After another decade, the plan proposes building new apartment complexes, should the demand for housing on campus support new construction.
Even if the board adopts the plan next month, the decision doesn’t finalize any proposals contained within the plan. So, approval will not, for example, sell off Trapper Village West.
Trustee John Housel explained that legally speaking, no decision the present board makes now can bind a future board, and the plan is “not going to be so firmly established that it can’t be altered or changed.”
Karl Bear, who worked as director of admissions at NWC from 1989 to 1997, said he recalled when the college acquired Trapper Village West, former Air Force housing purchased from the federal government for $1. At the time, he said, the college’s housing was “bursting at the seams.”
Bear said Trapper West is a “tremendous asset” that could be repurposed for something like veteran housing.
“There’s so many creative thoughts you could do with Trapper Village West,” Bear stated.
Lisa Harsh, whose family was featured in some early marketing materials for Trapper West, said she had “good, fond memories” of living there. She suggested the housing could be used for University of Wyoming distance learning students.
Scott Keister, an NWC employee and resident at Trapper West, pointed out that the housing provides a powerful recruitment tool for the institution by offering an easy option for housing needs of new staff and faculty.
“If you pay attention to the housing market here, it’s not great,” Keister said.
Other commenters also remarked on the need for housing in Powell for various purposes.
The board didn’t directly respond to any questions or comments from the public.
“We’re just here to listen,” Spomer said before opening the meeting to public comments.
After comments were heard, however, the board members spoke generally on the plan and filled in some information about the process that would execute specific actions regarding campus housing.
Trustee Bob Newsome corrected the perception some commenters seemed to have that, if NWC sold the property at some point in the future, all the housing facilities in Trapper Village West wouldn’t exist anymore.
“If that property should be sold — and I’ll stress the word ‘if’ — whoever would buy that would seek to rent it,” Newsome said. “And they will rent it. … Those facilities are not just going to go poof and disappear.”
Local resident Baltazar Rodriguez asked who he could talk to about purchasing Trapper West, saying it could be an “amazing investment.” Rodriguez said he was looking at the investment for general rentals or housing for retirees.
Rebekah Burns, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership, said she and her husband, who works at NWC, considered living at Trapper West when the family moved to Powell from Georgia, but she was concerned about being “isolated” in a neighborhood that is way at the far edge of town.
Burns also remarked about concerns landlords have with NWC competing for market housing in town.
“I think it’s a win-win for the community if we give the business community a bigger opportunity,” Burns said.
Anna Sapp, who said she works in property management, said the college’s current approach to housing is “good, professional management.” This accounts, she argued, for the reason they’re not generating enough revenues they need from their housing.
Not a slam dunk
The board members thanked the people who attended the meeting for their active engagement, and Spomer stated their comments would be considered when the board considers the plan for adoption at its regular Sept. 14 meeting.
Spomer said the school’s financial picture is forcing the board to make difficult decisions about campus housing.
“We have to do more with less,” he said. “There was a time in this community that we could do all kinds of great things at Northwest College because the funding was there in more than one form.”
Spomer showed a number of slides that illustrated how NWC’s budgeted revenues have changed over time, peaking in 2013 at around $21 million. This year, they’ll be closer to $18 million. Tuition and fees brought in nearly $4.7 million in 2014, only to fall to around $3.9 million this year. State appropriations rose to nearly $12 million in 2013 and have been around $10 million since 2017.
Newsome stated that the board had “wrestled” with decisions and that it wasn’t a “slam dunk.”
He said he wasn’t speaking for the board, but he was “very concerned [the board makes] the best possible decision we can for the long-term prosperity — and potentially the survival — of this institution. Rest assured, these decisions are not taken lightly over a cup of coffee.”
Newsome said that after a long, steady decline in enrollment, college leaders hoped they had hit the bottom, but couldn’t be certain. And if that decline began to reverse, an upward trend would need to be sustained for years before the school would reach levels where it would need new housing. At even a 3% to 5% growth rate, it would be a very slow recovery.
Trustee Mark Wurzel spoke of the changing trends in housing preferences of today’s younger students. When housing demand at NWC was much higher, students viewed college as a chance to get away from parents and live independently. Now, Wurzel said, students tend to be more comfortable living at home rent-free. He expected the trend would continue to influence diminishing demand for campus housing, even if enrollment levels rebound.
Trustee Carolyn Danko also spoke of the changing trends in student housing demand. Many years ago, she said student dormitories had house mothers who supervised the social activities of the residents. The students had curfews and would get grounded for missing them. Students today seek a lot more independence.
Danko also pointed out how difficult it will be to reverse trends in declining enrollment, due to the changing composition of families. Whereas families used to have eight kids, a family with four would be considered exceptionally large by most of today’s standards.
That means fewer young people seeking college educations, Danko said, and so seven community colleges in Wyoming are recruiting from a continuing shrinking pool of potential students.
In order to generate the revenues for the college’s housing to be sustainable, they need to maintain 90% capacity, Danko explained, and that’s going to be hard with their current number of housing units.
“We wish it could be different, but we’re having to deal with what is,” Danko said.
The Monday, Sept. 14 board of trustees meeting begins at 4 p.m.
Community participation sought in Future Summit Sept. 10 at NWC
Area residents are invited to join Northwest College faculty and staff for a half-day Future Summit, which will be facilitated by college employees in partnership with Higher Education Consultant CampusWorks, Thursday, Sept. 10, from 8 a.m. to noon in the Yellowstone Building Conference Center.
As a culminating event following a community survey and a series of focus groups, the half-day Future Summit will bring the college and community together to begin charting the future of NWC to ensure sustainability through the ups and downs in enrollment and economic trends.
The half-day Future Summit is an opportunity to actively participate in envisioning the future of the college. There will be speakers and break-out sessions to discuss the challenges the institution is facing and what big, bold ideas the college can embrace to better position itself for the future. Topics and speakers during the event include the following.
Enrollment Opportunities: Colleen Falkenstein, Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education
Innovative Academic Programs: Edward DesPlas, Vice President for Academic Affairs, San Juan College
Power of Partnerships: Gary Danes: Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs, Barton College
Institutional Differentiation: Jim Owston, Asst. Provost, Extended Learning, Alderson Broaddus University
Those who would like to participate in the Future Summit with the college are encouraged to RSVP online at nwc.edu/future or call 307-754-6096 to reserve a spot. Those who prefer to attend via Zoom video conferencing can indicate they wish to do so on a RSVP form to receive a meeting link. Those who attend in-person will be required to wear face coverings and maintain 6 feet of social distancing.