University or tech school

Rocco O’Neill, community development director for the city, and Uinta County Commissioner Eric South listen as commissioner Craig Welling shares his thoughts on utilizing the state hospital campus as a university, community college expansion or a technical school. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire).

Officials look to education as future use of WSH campus

EVANSTON — Discussion surrounding the future of the old campus of the Wyoming State Hospital continued on Tuesday, June 18, during a work session of the Uinta County Commissioners. In addition to commissioners themselves, others in attendance included county elected officials and representatives of the City of Evanston, Uinta BOCES No. 1, Western Wyoming Community College, the Evanston Historic Preservation Commission, the Wyoming Business Council and several area state legislators. 

Evanston Community Development Director Rocco O’Neill began the discussion by saying it has been left up to the community to come up with a plan for the campus once the old buildings are vacated in a year or two when construction of the new facility is completed. He said looking into using the property as some type of higher education campus is the path “we’ve chosen to go down” through multiple discussions. 

O’Neill said Wyoming spends huge sums of money to educate children in grades K-12, but then many of those young people leave to attend college elsewhere. He said, as he has in previous meetings, that he would like to see the state support a second four-year university in Evanston to serve the western side of the state and surrounding areas. 

Although general information on the condition of the buildings on the old campus is available, O’Neill said no feasibility study to compare costs of demolition versus costs to repurpose buildings, or a combination of demolition and repurposing, has yet been done. He said moving forward with such a study will be an important step in developing a plan to take to the state legislature. 

Jim Davis, of the Evanston Historic Preservation Commission, said he has spent nearly his entire career working on historic preservation and he’s upset that so many of the old buildings have already been basically abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Davis said he feels the state has inappropriately dumped this burden on the local community, with no funding allocated to do anything at all with the buildings even though they are state owned. He said he would like to see at least some of the buildings “moth balled” to prevent further deterioration until the community can develop a plan. 

Commissioner Eric South agreed with Davis and said, “The state needs to step up and take responsibility.” 

State Rep. Tom Crank (HD-18) said he has only been a legislator for a short time, but he believes the state is amenable to working with the community once a plan has been developed. Crank said he believes there was some discussion about allocating funds for demolition of the old campus, although that allocation never actually materialized. Representative Danny Eyre (HD-19) said he is excited about O’Neill’s ideas and enthusiasm but believes it would be a “heavy lift” to get any dollars from the state. 

The amount discussed by the legislature for possible demolition was a point of confusion throughout the commission work session. Crank said to the best of his recollection, the number discussed was approximately $6 million. However, O’Neill said in his discussion with State Representative Lloyd Larsen (HD-54), chair of the task force on mental health facilities, the number was closer to $3 million. State Sen. Wendy Schuler (SD-15) said in her discussions with Larsen she thought the number was about $11 million. 

In spite of the disparities in the amount discussed, everyone was in agreement that no funds had ever actually been designated for demolition or anything else. State Rep. Garry Piiparinen (HD-49) said the state was already facing a structural deficit and there wasn’t any money to do anything with the campus. 

Piiparinen also questioned whether a second four-year university was a viable option. He said with the growth of online programs many of the community colleges throughout the state are struggling with declining enrollment and the community already has programs through BOCES and WWCC. 

O’Neill countered Piiparinen’s comments by citing the expanding population of Utah and the possibility of marketing a university to students from the Wasatch Front, pulling students in from out of state and stopping the “leaking” of Wyoming students from the western side of the state, who often leave the state to attend college. “The state doesn’t have a lot of funding, I understand that,” he said. “But the campus is already here. We’re just asking for help to use it.” 

Kiley Ingersoll with BOCES and Heidi Currutt with WWCC Evanston Outreach said they are always looking to expand programs to meet community needs. Ingersoll said BOCES has partnerships with the University of Wyoming, Western Governors University and Utah State University that allow people to get degrees via outreach and online courses, and WWCC offers a nursing program that can be done entirely in Evanston. 

Currutt said a new president will be taking over at WWCC this summer so it is a great time to be meeting and discussing new opportunities. She said she would love to see WWCC grow and sees no reason not to market educational options to surrounding states, focusing on local resources and playing on area strengths. 

State Sen. Dan Dockstader (SD-16) of Afton, also on the mental health facilities task force, traveled to Evanston to attend the meeting. He said he thinks the community could focus on extending and expanding programs offered by WWCC and building on resources already in existence. 

Schuler said she would love to see some sort of technical school move into the vacated buildings. “I’m a bit of a dreamer,” she said. “If we hadn’t had dreams, we wouldn’t have the Roundhouse and Machine Shop.” Schuler said technical programs to train electricians, plumbers, carpenters and even a culinary program are possibilities. She said she doesn’t think it’s possible to save all the buildings on the campus but saving some is possible and added, “It would look better to have something up there than a big empty field.” 

Schuler said she thinks the county could consider instituting an additional penny tax to help fund a project because she agrees the state doesn’t have the funds to put into anything. “We might be missing the boat by not taking a look at it,” she said. “People from here drive to Utah and pay extra tax on things all the time and don’t think twice about it.” 

Uinta County Treasurer Terry Brimhall said the penny tax was utilized in the county previously for $16 million water treatment plant projects in Evanston and the Bridger Valley, beginning in the late 1990s. Brimhall said it took between four and five years to raise the $16 million and then the additional tax was removed. She said people should keep in mind that it’s not just local residents who would be paying any added tax but everybody who purchases anything within the county. 

Commissioner Mark Anderson said he too likes the idea of a technical program, not just for educational purposes but because a tech school could be used to lure other industries to the area, like Sheridan was recently able to do with the Weatherby company. Anderson said a tech school may be easier to pursue than a university and may be preferable from an economic development perspective. 

Commissioner Craig Welling also said he thinks a technical school may be more appropriate, given the growth of online college options. 

Elaina Zempel with the Wyoming Business Council said she thinks a combination of demolition and preservation may be the way to proceed. “I don’t think there’s just one solution. This might be a combination of six to 10 solutions.” 

After extensive discussion and brainstorming of ideas, the allotted time for the meeting had elapsed. O’Neill said discussions will continue in the future as community officials look to develop a clear plan. 

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