Ceremonial ground breaking held for WSU’s Everett branch

EVERETT — With the turn of a few shovels of dirt Tuesday, leaders of Washington State University and Snohomish County began preparing a foundation on which will rise a new building and launch a new era for the city.

Interim WSU President Dan Bernardo led a contingent of officialdom in a ceremonial ground breaking for the Everett University Center that will be the cornerstone of the research university’s growing presence in the city.

“This is a big, big deal,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said a few hours before taking part. “For anyone who’s ever had any doubt of Washington State’s commitment to Everett, this should erase any doubts. We really can plant the (WSU) flag right now.”

The four-story, 95,000-square-foot building is being constructed on a chunk of land in the north corner of the College Plaza parking lot on North Broadway and Tower Street. The site is owned by Everett Community College, whose main campus is across the street.

Work on the $54.6 million structure is expected to finish in time for the start of the 2017 school year. When it opens, it will have at least a dozen classrooms, 10 laboratories, offices, a small café and an area for public gatherings.

It will serve as home to WSU North Puget Sound at Everett and the Everett University Center, a consortium of higher education institutions managed by WSU. Both now operate on the campus of Everett Community College.

State Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, who shepherded funding for the project through the budget process, called it “the stake in the ground. It really means (the university) has arrived. People are going to drive up that street and see WSU on a building.”

Retired state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, of Camano Island, who sponsored the bill that put WSU on the path it now travels, shared the sentiment.

“This is just the beginning. It is the first building but it isn’t the last. I think it’ll be another Vancouver,” she said, referring to WSU’s branch campus in that city. “Look at the programs (WSU) is offering. There is so much opportunity.”

Tuesday’s ceremonial dirt-moving is a milestone in the half-century effort to land a four-year university in Snohomish County.

Olympia beat out Arlington in 1967 to become home of The Evergreen State College. Two decades later, Bothell beat out Everett for a branch campus of the University of Washington.

In 2005, state lawmakers gave the University of Washington the inside track to establishing a beachhead for a branch campus in the county.

But feuding among the area’s representatives on a location — Dunshee and Haugen led opposing factions in that squabble — and the projected billion-dollar price tag torpedoed the effort by 2007.

In 2009, with the UW no longer showing much interest, Stephanson approached WSU President Elson Floyd about giving it a try.

In the next two years they, in concert with a core group of area lawmakers and two governors, pushed to put WSU in charge of the University Center program — Everett Community College had masterfully managed it for several years — and put in place the legislative pillars for the founding of WSU North Puget Sound.

Tuesday brought many tributes to Floyd, who died in June of cancer.

“Elson crystallized our dream of a research university in Everett into a focused and achievable game plan,” Stephanson said in remarks prepared for the ground breaking. “This new building, and the many students who will pass through its doors, will forever be a tribute to Elson’s vision and determination.”

The University Center is a partnership of WSU, UW Bothell, the three regional universities — Western, Central and Eastern — and The Evergreen State College. One private college, Hope International University, also is involved. Each college offers its own upper division courses on the EvCC campus or online. The collective enrollment is 530.

WSU North Puget Sound at Everett, with an enrollment of 158 students, offers classes to complete bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, hospitality business management and integrated communication. Software engineering and data analytics programs will be added to the roster in fall 2016.

Conversations for the new building began in 2012 and the following year WSU received $10 million in state funds to design it and acquire neighboring properties for use as parking. This year it snagged the money for construction.

“I remember being in Ray Stephanson’s office and saying we ought to have a building,” recalled Dunshee, who as chairman of the House Capital Budget committee ensured the state’s construction spending plan included financing for this project.

When the building opens, the Cougar flag will be flying outside along with those of the partner universities.

Stephanson said it will be a vital component in the community’s economic development. Area employers like the Boeing Co. are increasing their demand for aerospace, electronics and advanced manufacturing jobs is growing. That in turn is causing a surge in enrollment in engineering, science, technology and math programs at EvCC and University Center partners that are forcing the need for additional space.

That’s why Haugen and Stephanson think the size of the operation in Everett will one day rival that of the WSU campus in Pullman.

“I want to be there when this first building opens,” Haugen said. “I am hoping my great-grandchildren go there.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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