U of North plans run into roadblock

Thompson group ready to fight student family housing on campus


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It's an enormous project to transform post-secondary education in the North.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2010 (4623 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s an enormous project to transform post-secondary education in the North.

The new $82-million University College of the North campus in Thompson features an 8,000-square-metre academic building complete with labs and a daycare centre that should open by the start of classes in 2013.

But what will really make post-secondary schooling accessible for people throughout the North, the heart of this vision, is this campus’s student family housing complex.

The first phase will be 24 units of three and four bedrooms apiece and there will be more housing later, says Advanced Education Minister Diane McGifford. It’s an innovative idea that the major players predict will allow northerners with families to become typical UCN students.

Yet that housing and the potential loss of some or even all the extensive volunteer-operated community recreational facilities on the campus site have led to the creation of a group of 15 Thompson residents threatening legal action against the massive project.

They claim Thompson city council ignored planning rules and procedures and that the city is turning over to UCN a significant community recreational space for multi-bedroom family housing that they say is not considered a usual part of a university campus in Canada.

“City council is actually breaking its own bylaws by its actions,” said group member Wayne Hall. “It boils down to ‘give us our say.’ “

The 15 residents have hired Winnipeg lawyer Richard Whidden, and are raising money and recruiting more members while preparing to launch whatever legal action it takes to halt construction.

The Winnipeg Free Press has obtained a copy of the letter Whidden sent to Thompson city council July 19 laying out the group’s complaints and demands.

City manager Randy Patrick said city council is awaiting an analysis of Whidden’s letter from its own legal counsel.

The retired Hall said most group members are afraid to make their names public because of possible repercussions to their jobs and businesses.

He said they want UCN’s student housing built elsewhere in Thompson, and they want the recreational facilities on campus preserved.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of (volunteers’) hours, and those groups are being swept aside as if they didn’t exist,” said Hall, who hopes it will be an issue in the Oct. 27 municipal election.

“It’s a low-income subsidized housing project” being built ahead of the academic campus, Hall said. “If there’s a change in government, there’s no commitment in writing to build this university.”

Hall said the group also wants to know if city councillors who work for the provincial government declared a conflict of interest every step of the way.

Patrick said the multi-bedroom student family housing falls within the uses zoning bylaws allow for recreational land.

“The zoning allows a university to be built — parks and recreational (zoning); the conditional use is universities and higher education,” he said.

“It’s huge — it’s going to be a significant investment in the community,” said Thompson deputy mayor Harold Smith. “This will be a major social, economic driver in our community.

“The city’s commitment, that whole site is UCN,” including the housing and daycare, Smith declared. “We’re open to displacing some of that recreational space, that’s the reality. We want to say unequivocally, ‘Hey, this site is now a UCN campus.’ “

UCN president Denise Henning is elated at the prospect of the Thompson school’s expansion from inadequate space in what was once a dormitory for miners. And she’s just as elated that there is also expansion of the co-main campus in The Pas that’s scheduled to be ready in 2012.

“Our graduation rates have steadily increased, as have our retention rates,” Henning said, pointing to overall enrolment of 2,400 at all UCN sites, with university enrolment up 49 per cent last year and college up 10 per cent.

“There are plans for additional housing,” McGifford said, but she would not speculate how many more multi-bedroom units would be built on campus, or when.

The city expects more on-campus housing, said city manager Randy Patrick, and Manitoba Housing CEO Darrell Jones expects pressure for more units: “There is certainly significant demand coming from people who want educational advancement but have already started a family,” Jones said.


In the heart of the city

The project is massive — $82 million for a new University College of the North campus in downtown Thompson, slated to open three years from now.

And that’s just the first of three anticipated phases.

The Selinger government has not yet committed to timelines and price tags for Phase 2, which is to be a major infrastructure project of vocational classrooms and labs, or for Phase 3, which is to be a further significant expansion to meet future student demand.

The new campus will sit in the heart of Thompson, contiguous to existing indoor ice rinks and a curling rink at one end and to R.D. Parker Collegiate at the other.

The project will displace some — and maybe eventually all — of a wide range of recreational and community uses. The site contains two baseball stadiums, a shooting range and community hall, a zoo proposed to include a wolf centre of excellence, trails and parking and green space used for festival events such as the annual Nickel Days.

Advanced Education Minister Diane McGifford says the two phases will bring campus enrolment to 900 university and 340 trades students.

“I don’t have a date for Phase 2… we would like to do it as soon as we can after Phase 1,” McGifford said.

“Denise (UCN president Denise Henning) will come to the council with her priorities,” McGifford said. “One of the dreams of the institution is indigenous and aboriginal knowledge.”

Indeed, Henning said that UCN envisions partnering with a proposed wolf centre of excellence and with the aboriginal arts centre. “It’s a natural interplay.”

Phase 3 would be additional classrooms and faculties based on enrolment needs. “Phase 3 will occur when there’s pressure on the institution to expand,” McGifford said.

“The intention of all the projects is to look at what we can safely project that is sustainable for 20 years. The children’s daycare is a major priority” in the main building, Henning said.

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