University to pay $3.6M for facility
POCATELLO — Idaho State University officials announced Wednesday they're closing on a $3.6 million deal to purchase the former Ballard Medical facility, which will soon house a hightech, multidisciplinary research laboratory.
President Arthur Vailas anticipates the research facility will serve as a major draw for top professors, researchers, graduate students and undergraduates, providing the university with substantial new revenue streams.
He predicts groundbreaking innovations in homeland security, biomedicine, advanced imaging, green energy and a host of other fields will be made within the 200,000-square-foot building, which has been vacant since Ballard left town in 2007. He’s also certain other universities, corporations and the Idaho National Laboratory will seek to partner with ISU on several projects conducted at the facility, to be called the Idaho Joint Research Center.
“We have a number of potential suitors — very significant suitors — who are interested in participating in this endeavor,” Vailas said, adding it’s likely that the new center could also draw other high-tech businesses to the city’s industrial park.
The university’s College of Science and Engineering, headed by Dean George Imel, will take the lead role in running the facility. For Imel, the massive building, located on Alvin Ricken Drive, doubles the space for a college that already has five buildings.
The facility is in good shape and should be ready to occupy with no renovation needed, officials said. Imel said ISU has about $33 million in specialized equipment, which was either donated to the university or funded by grants, that’s been left in storage because there has been no place to operate it. All of that equipment will be moved into the new center, and the Ballard building acquisition has helped ISU firm offers to obtain $9 million in additional equipment, Imel said.
Imel said staff will be dedicated to the facility and ISU will be hiring soon. Imel noted the facility will be unique and will complement both the INL and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, which is a research and education partnership between Boise State University, the INL, ISU and the University of Idaho. Imel added that CAES is now full.
“We’re not competing against CAES,” he said, adding he envisions Idaho’s other institutions of higher education will also make good use of the Idaho Joint Research Center as they have with CAES. BSU’s material science program, he said, should be “interested in using the equipment and collaborating in a very significant way.”
Vailas described the development as “another example of why higher education has to be front and center in building a knowledge-based economy.”
“You’re going to see more down the road,” Vailas said. “I have to thank my predecessors both in the university and the community that had the vision to create a research park.”
The ISU officials said they’ve discussed the concept since about 2006 but had to wait for the right opportunity to present itself.
ISU’s financial vice president, James Fletcher, said funding for the purchase came from the university’s unrestricted reserves. Rather than viewing the purchase as a depletion of reserves, Fletcher argued the building adds a gem to the university’s assets. In this case, the replacement cost of the building is estimated at $26 million, and it was appraised at $5 million, Fletcher said.
He said the investment should also pay for itself quickly, and that ISU will have its internal loan for the purchase covered within a year.
Gynii Gilliam, executive director of Bannock Development Corp., is optimistic that opening a “world-class research center” should facilitate her efforts to lure high-tech businesses to the community.
Mayor Brian Blad added, “It’s a wonderful opportunity and one more reason for the community to get behind ISU. ... Many jobs I’m sure will be coming because of this.”
The facility itself won’t remain on the tax rolls under ISU’s ownership.
The news is bitter-sweet to Jonathan Dinger, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church and School.
Grace Lutheran had previously made a bid for the building, with plans to use it to house its church, school, a new high school program and acommunity center. Grace Lutheran’s request for a zoning exception was denied twice by the City Council.
Dinger said his congregation will now move on to Plan B, which is to expand at its current location.
“It’s simply going to take us many more years and many more millions of dollars to do so, but we’ll do it,” Dinger said. “We had a backup plan in place. We’re already working on it.”
Dinger wished ISU good luck with its plans.
“We’ve said all along that we think the idea of an interdisciplinary lab and something that promotes growth is a great thing,” Dinger said.
However, the pastor does take exception to the fact that ISU was among the chief critics of his church’s plans when “they wanted the building for themselves.”
“We’re all right, but it’s fair to say the way this was handled continues to come under scrutiny,” Dinger said.
Though ISU officials declined to comment during the press conference on Grace Lutheran’s concerns, Blad gave the congregation credit for bringing to light the asset the city had in the Ballard building.
“It was a sleeping giant up there, and Grace had a good idea,” Blad said. “The problem with their idea is it was the wrong zoning.”
Gilliam believes the congregation will ultimately be pleased by a significant step forward for the local economy and the likelihood of new high-tech jobs for Grace Lutheran’s graduates.