Two expansion-minded universities are setting off alarm bells in Arden Hills.
Last year, concern that the growth plans of both Bethel University and the University of Northwestern could eat into the tax and job bases of the Ramsey County suburb led to a quick clampdown on expansion so officials could assess the situation.
Now, documents emerging from a study still underway — including data unveiled for a pair of meetings on Wednesday — reveal the city’s continued concern that the colleges will eat into its limited supply of space for desirable development.
A city official told planning commissioners that college facilities, on the scale of desirability, rank as Category 3 institutions — at the bottom, along with hotels and fast-food restaurants, when it comes to bringing in high-paying jobs per square foot.
“There’s activity,” including students and their traffic, planner Eric Zweber said, “but the number of paid employees is pretty low.”
A yearlong moratorium was swiftly imposed last fall after Northwestern let on that it wished to buy up the empty building left behind when Smiths Medical suddenly decided to head west for Hennepin County instead of Ramsey County as its corporate headquarters.
The announcement followed by just a couple of years a successful move by Bethel to acquire a 225,000-square-foot building in Arden Hills once occupied by Countrywide Financial for what is now its Anderson Center, a remote facility 1 ½ miles from its main campus.
The city is asking why either school needs off-campus expansion when both seem to have room on campus to do more building. And its comparisons of the income a school brings into town vs. a corporate campus, are stark.
Lurking behind it all: the reality that an educational institution’s arrival could mean a hit to the budget, with exemption from property taxes.
Cayla Blucker, spokeswoman for Northwestern, said Wednesday that the school has no comment at this point. Suzanne McInroy, director of communications at Bethel, said that school is watching the city’s response with great interest and some concern.
“We’ve already expanded our footprint and want to keep the option open, although we have no concrete plans,” she said.
In the past, Northwestern has explained that the Smiths building, set up for high tech, was uniquely suited to the kind of scientific training it sought to do. Its president told a reporter the school was willing to negotiate when it came to tax-exempt status.
Planning commissioners in May spoke openly of the potential loss of tax revenue from takeovers of commercial buildings by religious nonprofits, although a City Council member did note that Bethel agreed to assist the city in building a trail in connection with its off-campus expansion.
But the issue goes beyond just a stray building or two: Arden Hills was able to establish from interviews with top administrators that the two schools both are eager to grow.
“Both are looking to double their student population,” Zweber told planning commissioners last month, “but are doing it essentially by expanding graduate or continuing education offerings, not the traditional [undergraduate] student populations.”
That suggests an entrepreneurial spirit not tied to conventional campus settings, with a desire to take advantage of Arden Hills’ ideal accessibility at the confluence of key northeast metro freeways.
A broader concern
Concern that colleges could eat into prime commercial space coincides with a wider anxiety over the east metro’s competitive posture these days.
The Metropolitan Council just this week announced that its annual survey of building permits shows Ramsey County took a big step back in new homebuilding in 2016, while the rest of the metro as a whole was gaining.
Arden Hills is on track to have its City Council consider new zoning rules in September about which districts will be acceptable locations for higher education, Zweber has said. The goal would be new rules in place before the moratorium on higher-education expansion expires.