Financial threat doesn't dampen U goundbreaking

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2011 - 9:41 AM

The University of Minnesota may be under financial threat at the Capitol, but there was no sign of worry Wednesday afternoon as ground was broken for the third of three big new research facilities that will anchor the Biomedical Discovery District north of TCF Bank Stadium.

Minnesota’s bid for a competitive place in the global biosciences industry is on track and on schedule, university leaders assured.

The latest building, the Cancer and Cardiovascular Research Complex, or “Cancer-Cardio,” will stand east of the other two new facilities, the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research and the Wallin Medical Biosciences Building.

At 280,000 square feet, the new building will be the largest of the three, and will serve as a gateway to a district that planners believe will eventually connect to a biosciences industry corridor.

Originally, four big laboratories were contemplated; now there will be three. But that does not represent a scaling down of the district’s ambitions, said recently retired vice president for health sciences Frank Cerra.
The change was made to take advantage of efficiencies and synergies that would result in one larger building rather than two smaller ones, Cerra said. The savings thus obtained were directed to upgrades in older medical research labs elsewhere on campus.
Cerra’s successor, Aaron Friedman, said that while “state support is critical” to the university’s total operations, the institution is committed to shielding its biomedical research build-out from financial storms at the statehouse.
“This is a world-class facility and it is going to move forward,” Friedman said. The 2008 Legislature’s $220 million state bond authorization  – and not annual appropriations – is the Discovery District’s crucial underpinning. 
Friedman was describing an evolution in the relationship between state government and Minnesota’s flagship university. Repeated rounds of funding cuts have frayed the tie between state taxpayers and university students.
State funding now covers only 18 percent of university instructional costs, and that share looks likely to keep declining.
But the university still relies heavily on the state for bonding to finance capital expenditures. Indeed, one way for legislators to soften the blow of another round of university cuts would be to act this year on a request for $50 million in state bond proceeds to finance a new physics/nanotechnology laboratory.
That project has Gov. Mark Dayton’s backing, which means it could become an ingredient in a state budget deal in coming days.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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