GRAND FORKS -- Cranes and other accoutrements of construction likely will be a common site on UND’s campus in the foreseeable future as the university continues efforts to shrink its footprint.

The university began to demolish its historic Memorial Stadium earlier this month. The teardown comes about a year and a half after the school demolished the Memorial Union.

Now, construction of a new Memorial Union is approaching its end. Brian Larson, director of construction management at UND, said work will likely wrap up in July in the interior of the building, with a public opening tentatively scheduled for August.

The new $80 million student center is being funded mostly by student fees, with UND chipping in some dollars annually, too.

Just down University Avenue, the new Nistler College of Business & Public Administration is beginning to take shape. The school should be completed in May 2022 with faculty and staff spending the summer months getting moved into the new building.

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“A nice, early spring is really helping us out,” Larson said.

The campus has been busy with construction and demolition projects over the past three to four years.

In the last year, the old campus steam plant was demolished, replaced with a smaller, new plant that operates in significantly less square footage with contemporary technology. That building is being funded through a private-public partnership with Johnson Controls.

Before construction began on that project in 2018, the university eliminated more than a half dozen other buildings, including the Strinden Center, Montgomery Hall, Corwin-Larimore Hall and others.

Also in 2018, renovations began on the historic J. Lloyd Stone House, which at one time was the university president's home. It was updated and renamed the Dr. Kathleen and Hal Gershman Graduate Center after a $3 million donation from the Grand Forks couple.

The Columbia, Gamble dance

The university wants to reduce its square footage even further, according to Mike Pieper, associate vice president of facilities at UND.

The school’s No. 1 request with the Legislature this biennium is funding to renovate Twamley and Merrifield halls, with the eventual closure and demolition of Columbia and Gamble halls.

The timeline isn’t exactly set in stone, Pieper noted.

Additionally, pulling off the renovations of Twamley and Merrifield will require a bit of dancing from building to building over the next few years.

Pieper said that ideally, work will begin after the new Nistler building opens in 2022. The thought process would involve moving everyone in Gamble Hall, which has been serving as the UND business school for more than 50 years, across the street to the Nistler building; after that, the university would move people in Merrifield Hall into Gamble Hall so the renovation of Merrifield could take place.

After those renovations were completed and individuals were moved back into Merrifield, the university would hope to move people out of Twamley and again into Gamble Hall for construction before moving back into Twamley again.

At the close of that construction period, which may be 2026 or later, Gamble Hall would be removed from campus.

“Construction is so much quicker and cheaper to work in empty buildings,” Pieper said. “If we can get the funding to work, that's how we would prefer to do it. If it seems like there's going to be a longer delay in funding for Merrifield, then we'll have to circle back and think, ‘do we keep Gamble longer than we really want to leverage it for Merrifield? Or is it too much of an unknown that we just move forward with Gamble?’”

Ideally, the university would get funding approved this legislative session to start design work for Merrifield and Twamley halls, with construction starting in 2023. But at this point it's a big ask from the state, Pieper said.

UND dropped its request from the Legislature down to $5 million so it can begin the design work on the building. That gives UND time to find more potential donations toward the projects and would give university officials a better idea of the final price tag of them, too.

Pieper said the intent of Columbia Hall all along was to work as a swing space for the university. While the building has nicer finishes on the outside, the systems within it are in poor repair.

Columbia Hall has allowed the university to tear down other buildings over the last few years. But once Merrifield Hall is completed, the university hopes to move some of the classes currently housed in Columbia Hall into Merrifield and Twamley, with some other aspects going to other parts of campus.

“It would all be dependent on when we could finish the Merrifield project,” he said, adding that Columbia could be shuttered by 2025 if the plan moves forward.

He said the university would look for partnerships to allow for mixed-use development of the site.

Reducing size, costs

All of those projects alone would reduce the campus’ footprint by 325,000 square feet. That’s on top of the 800,000 square feet the campus already has removed over the past few years. He said the campus wants to reduce its footprint by about 2 million square feet to get in line with its peer institutions.

“That’s a big reduction in ongoing operating costs,” he said, noting that reducing square footage could result in saving $3 million to $7 million a year.

In total, the projects (Twamley, Merrifield and Nistler) would cost around $150 million, with UND asking for about half of that money from the state and fundraising the other half.

The projects would also reduce the campus’ projected capital renewal – or the dollars spent to keep up with older facilities – by about $132 million.

Deferred maintenance and campus space utilization began to become big talking points for higher education in the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions, Pieper said. At one point, UND reported that it had around $580 million worth of deferred maintenance on campus, a number that shocked legislators, but Pieper noted the dollar amount, paired with the total square footage of campus, actually puts UND about average for higher education deferred maintenance.

“It's just unfortunate, higher-ed is probably the worst industry in the United States when it comes to space use and deferred maintenance,” he said. “So, being average within that industry isn't necessarily a good thing. We've made a lot of strides to improve both our space utilization and our deferred maintenance.”

But even as UND puts up new buildings and works to reduce its footprint, the landscape of higher education is still changing, as are the ways students attend campus.

UND President Andrew Armacost said as the university moves into a “modern way” of teaching, whether that means in the classroom or students dialing in from a distance, the campus has to have modern spaces to “pull that off.”

“If you look at the current status of Merrifield Hall, people have commented to me that when they were in school 30 or 40 years ago, it was not modern for those times,” he said. “So, certainly, it's not modern for current times. We know for a fact that the renovations will actually put us in a place to deliver education in a modern way.”