Whatcom reveals Learning Commons

By Alex George

Whatcom Community College plans to add the first state funded building on campus since Kulshan Hall was built in 2004, The Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons project.

Since 2004 Whatcom’s student body has grown by approximately 16 percent, and the Learning Commons is designed to fill the increased need for academic workspaces.

The plan for the Learning Commons include a variety of options for student use, a large traditional computer lab, smaller units for individual and group study, and bibliographic, computer enhanced classrooms that instructors can hold classes in.

Brian Keeley, Senior Director of Facilities and Operations said “The Learning Commons in general will house academic support. [The Learning Commons] will have the library, the math and writing center, the testing center, and a computer lab. There will also be a media center, with a small recording studio, video equipment, and space for a 3D printer.”

“We’re certain that instructors will make assignments utilizing the recording studio, but it’s not just for that. Students will be able to reserve time or drop in to make use of the [recording studio].” said Keeley.

The 64,747 square foot Learning Commons will free up space in Laidlaw, Cascade, and especially, in Heiner. Whatcom is still early in the process of deciding what to do with all of the extra space.

“We’re working on a student connections programming effort, talking about how to backfill the new open space in Heiner.” said Keeley, “In general, we’re looking at student services… How we can better organize our services like entry and advising and financial aid so they’re easier to find and use.”

The building will stand in the large field adjacent to Kulshan Hall, but has been carefully planned to preserve green space and nearby wetlands.

“Instead of trying to spread it out, we’re trying to build it up.” said Keeley, referring to the Learning Common’s three-story floor plan. Keeley believes events such as Orca Day will still be able to be hosted in the area, utilizing the remaining field area and the new infrastructure the Learning Commons will provide.

Aside from the academic support that the Learning Commons will add, it will also feature an outdoor plaza that functions as a continuation of the current quad on campus, a new café similar in size to the Dockside Café in Syre, and will be capable of hosting small events.

“One cool feature is the second story outdoor terrace.” said Keeley, referring to an outdoor patio on the proposed building’s second floor, where students will be able to study, socialize, and enjoy the occasional Bellingham sunshine.

The Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons, named for two of Whatcom’s longtime benefactors, has been discussed for more than a decade and has had its fair share of ups and downs seeking funding from Olympia.

“There was a project request put together back in 2003 called the Capstone Building.” said Keeley, “That slowly kind of evolved into the Learning Commons.”

Keely added that Whatcom initially requested funding for the design phase of the project in 2007, but due to the Great Recession the state government put a moratorium on most public construction.

“When things are going well, things get funded,” said Keeley, “when they’re not, they don’t.”

The design phase funding finally got approved in the 2013-2015 biannual budget.

So far, however, finding capital for the actual construction of the Learning Commons, totaling approximately $34 million, has proven elusive. Washington state creates biannual budgets, which means that schools can only apply to be included in the main budget once every two years, although there is a smaller supplemental budget in the in-between year. For large projects like the Learning Commons, schools usually try to get the money for building design in one biannual budget, and money for the actual construction in the next budget, making it an at least four year procedure.

The state funding process is extremely competitive. With all 34 Washington state community colleges jockeying for a finite amount of money, it can become a long process.

“What happened to us, we were funded for design in 2013-2015, but not funded for construction for 2015-2017.” said Keeley. He added that there was hope to get the Learning Commons on the supplementary budget in January of 2016 but wasn’t approved, so Whatcom is looking to get approved on July 1 of 2017 on the 2017-2019 budget. If approved, construction would begin in late July 2017 and the Learning Commons would open its doors in autumn of 2019.

Although Whatcom is seeking state capital funding, that’s not the only option for the college. For example, Whatcom’s Axillary Services Building was constructed from funds saved over 12-14 years, or Whatcom could sell Certificate of Participation Bonds to private investors, or submit a project request to the state and borrow money from the state treasury at a low interest rate. The latter is how Kulshan Hall was funded.



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