Prince Albert U of S campus a promise fulfilled

The site of a future U of S campus. The unemployment gap for Ind. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The University of Saskatchewan is bringing a campus to Prince Albert.

The university already offers programming, but it takes place across the city. The new campus will allow the institution to bring that programming together under one roof. During the 2017-2018 academic year, 324 students in the colleges of arts, science, nursing and medicine took classes in Prince Albert. Of those, 47 per cent were Indigenous.

The property being purchased by the university is located at 1061 Central Avenue. Parts of the building will be renovated to meet the needs of the university, and the campus is expected to be operational by fall 2020. The university will share the building with some of its existing tenants.

“For now, nothing’s changing,” said university president Peter Stoicheff.

‘We do now that we’ll be keeping some tenants because that’s part of the way in which we’ll be financing this. The reason we don’t know what the renovations are going to look like is we’re going to be consulting with a lot of different stakeholders … to see what sorts of programs we should be offering that would be best for people.”

Stoicheff confirmed that all existing lease agreements would be honoured.

Over the next year, the university will develop a renovation plan. Renovated space will include classrooms, offices, lab facilities and common gathering areas.

The move will mean the university will no longer make use of the spaces it’s using right now for its programming. That includes the nursing school co-located with First Nations University of Canada, and facilities within Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

First Nations University will continue its programming, much of which is a partnership with the University of Regina.

According to Stoicheff, the U of S has a long history of being present in the north, running programming and conducting research. He said the building purchase and the development of a northern strategy emphasizes the institution’s commitment to Indigenous and northern education.

While the new campus will centralize courses currently offered around the city, it also gives the university space to grow.

“I’ve been going to visit our different course and program offerings for quite a few years. I used to do that when I was the dean of the College of Arts and Science, which offers quite a bit in P.A.,” Stoicheff said.

“I always felt and was told that our facilities were barely adequate and didn’t allow for growth. But P.A. is growing, the north is growing and Saskatoon … is the fastest growing city in the country. We want to build capacity in P.A. and the north. This allows us to increase our capacity for our current programs and to imagine building new programs there.”

Mayor Greg Dionne was excited by the news.

“Of course it’s great. I’ll be able to look out my window and see all those students and faculty coming and going,” he said.

“To me, it’s a game changer for the downtown. Those students will be filling the coffee shops, the little boutique restaurants we have and more that will be coming because of the university.”

The mayor indicated that some of the first programs coming into the space will be nursing and dentistry. Other future plans may include environmental-focused programs that suit students hoping to live and work in the north.

The two-story, 110,000-square foot building, currently known as the forest centre, was built in 2003, sits on 2.39 acres and is LEED (leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified. It is currently owned and managed by the Saskatchewan Opportunities Corporation (SOCO).

The building was originally designed to be a centre of excellence for forestry, but that vision never came to fruition.

“What it has become is a building we lease to the general public,” said Joe Hargrave, Prince Albert MLA and minister responsible for SOCO.

“The fact that it’s turning into a facility of higher education, I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s great for Prince Albert, I think it’s great for the north. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all rolls out.”

For both Dionne and Stoicheff, Thursday’s announcement is the culmination of months of work.

Dionne has been working on this for 18 months. The Forest Centre is the third building the U of S considered.

‘We worked hard on two other locations, and they ended up getting this one,” he said.

Stoicheff explained why the building made sense.

“Knowing we wanted to improve our offerings for students, that involved improved locations. We were saying we could build a new site, but that’s very expensive. We could try to find some place we could put all of our programming into and rent, but that’s not as financially strategic owning something. Or, we could purchase,” he said.

“There have been a few different options over the years, but none of them were entirely satisfactory. Sometimes they involved too many renovations, and after that wouldn’t have been quite right, or they weren’t in the right location. This came up and it gave us everything. It’s large enough for us to expand into it, it has got tenants that will help us pay for this through rental and lease agreements. It’ centrally located, and that’s a huge advantage for students.”

Expanding into a permanent P.A. campus marks a fulfillment of a promise Stoicheff made years ago. When he became president in summer 2015, his first stop on a provincial tour was Prince Albert. He knew it was strategic as a gateway to the north, and had a high demand for university programming. He attended a luncheon at that time.

“I said that we were committed to, somehow or other, improving our offering there, having a better site for students, creating a better mode of access for students in the north so they wouldn’t have to travel as far. It’s the principle of learning where you live. That was a priority for us,” he said.

“We didn’t know what it would look like at that time, but I knew we were committed to making it happen. I’m really excited that we have been able to do this, and that this opportunity arose. It’s all about access for students who otherwise would have a difficult time accessing our Saskatoon campus.”