Project will boost theater, dance, art, music majors

Monday, December 3, 2012
Hilary Peterson’s students warm up during their jazz dance class Wednesday at Southeast Missouri State University’s River Campus. There are 24 students in her class. (Laura Simon)

EDITOR'S NOTE: The name of the residence hall now under construction has been corrected.

The Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts at Southeast Missouri State University, better known as the River Campus, has been a popular addition to the university and the community since 2007, when it opened at a cost of more than $50 million. Located on the southern edge of downtown Cape Girardeau, the former Catholic seminary is home to the departments of theater, dance, art and music, and it has been the site of numerous theatrical and musical performances by students and touring artists.

But after five years of operation, university officials are calling for a new, $20 million facility at the River Campus to alleviate overcrowded academic space and the need for housing and dining facilities for the students who study there.

Ironically, the university's success in attracting students to the programs offered at the River Campus might have created the need.

"Because of the growth in the number of students at the River Campus, we've had to offer more classes," said Rhonda Weller-Stilson, director of the School of Visual and Performing Arts. "That calls for more space to be utilized. Right now, we're utilizing it to the maximum."

When construction of the River Campus began in 2003, there were 293 students at Southeast pursuing majors in art, music, theater and dance. When it opened its doors in fall 2007, there were 440 students. This fall there are 508 students, representing a 73 percent increase since 2003. The growth does not include students pursuing a minor in the arts or non-majors taking classes at the campus.

"We service a large number of students," Weller-Stilson said, "and we have to put them somewhere. There's only one dance studio and it's bursting at the seams with students. Another issue is the symphony orchestra needing its own rehearsal area. It's always getting bumped from rehearsals in Bedell Performance Hall because of conflicts with other departments and shows being performed there. Space is at a premium for everybody."

The expansion project, while still in its conceptual-design stage, proposes a four-story building near existing faculty offices and performance spaces, along with a basement to house mechanical equipment. The first floor will contain 25,000 square feet of academic space that will include a dance studio, art-instruction space and more room for choral and symphony rehearsals. A dining area for students in residence also is envisioned on the first floor, and three floors for residents above the academic space could provide from 150 to 180 beds for students. The residence halls are expected to encompass 65,000 square feet of the facility.

The prospect of residence halls in the new building appeals to Weller-Stilson. Limited to students seeking majors in the departments at the River Campus, she believes these rooms will be in demand.

"Most of the majors have only a limited amount of time to get from a class on the main campus to their next one at the River Campus," she said. "Then they end up rehearsing or working on art projects until very late. The shuttle service ends at midnight, and those without a car -- and there are many -- are constantly searching for a ride to the dorms on the main campus. Residence halls, at least for the majors, would cut down on a lot of coming and going."

Kathy Mangels, vice president for finance and administration at Southeast, said the university has experienced growth in a shorter time frame than anticipated.

"It was foreseeable there would be a rise in the number of students seeking majors at the River Campus once it had been built," Mangels said. "Anytime you have a new facility, you want there to be a positive reaction to it. What has happened is the university doing an excellent job in selling the programs offered at the River Campus to prospective students. Because of that, we've had strong enrollment but at the same time are experiencing a need for more instructional space."

Mangels said budget constraints during the initial design of the River Campus prevented the university from transferring all arts classes there.

"We couldn't create enough square footage to house them all," she said. "As a result, we still have courses such as ceramics, metal working and a dance class located back at the main campus. What that means for students trying to fulfill majors at the River Campus is they travel back-and-forth between campuses every day for classes that should already be there."

Dr. Ken Dobbins, president of Southeast, said unforeseen changes in the economy played a major role in scaling back the initial project.

"During the planning of the River Campus in 1998, and in the early phases of its construction, we contemplated being able to house all of the arts classes in the facility," Dobbins said. "However, things changed along the way to its completion. Events like 9/11 and the economic crisis that followed left us facing an across-the-board inflation of the planned costs. With the more prohibitive outlook, we weren't going to be able to accommodate all of the classes as we'd hoped."

Dobbins anticipates revenue bonds will be let by the university, perhaps as early as February 2013, to finance the estimated cost of the expansion. Bonds will cover construction of the building. Annual revenue from housing contracts and meal-plan commissions will be used to meet the annual debt service for the housing portion of the construction cost.

"The debt will be paid down by the housing contracts and meal plans with the majors who will live at the residence hall," Dobbins said. "They will have to pay for themselves. Also, the additional tuition revenue from increased majors at the River Campus will fund the debt service associated with the academic-space portion of the debt."

Room and board rates at Southeast have been on the rise in recent years, with the most recent being a 2.43 percent increase in room rates and a 4.96 percent increase in board fees in the 2013 budget year. Tuition rose 3 percent for in-state students and 6 percent for out-of-state students, partly in response to anticipated decreases in state funding. The university also pursued cost-cutting measures such as changes to employee benefits, eliminating vacant positions, replacing retiring tenured faculty with nontenured instructors, reducing operating budgets and combining academic programs.

The Board of Regents has not yet taken any action on how quickly Southeast's debt for the expansion could be retired or what housing rates in the new residence halls would be. But Dobbins said with low-interest rates expected to be the norm for the foreseeable future, he doubted the university would be calling in the bonds any earlier than their 30-year life span.

Dobbins, who hopes to reveal more information about the project after the Dec. 14 Board of Regents meeting, issued a reminder about the project.

"What we are working with at the moment is only an approval to proceed with construction plans," he said. "That in no way has obligated us to issue bonds. That can only happen with the approval of the Board of Regents."

The River Campus expansion project is expected to be completed by the fall 2014 semester.

The last expansion projects by the university were announced last year for the construction a new residence hall and its related chiller and boiler plant near the Show Me Center, financed with $29 million in revenue bonds. Like the proposed River Campus project, annual revenue from housing contracts, meal-plan revenue and other residence hall revenue are being used to retire the bonds. The new hall is expected to be completed by the fall 2013 semester.


Pertinent address:

Southeast Missouri State University River Campus, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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