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ISSUE 121 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/5/2007

Agricultural lands discussed

By Lauren Melcher
Staff Writer

Friday, October 5, 2007

On Oct. 4-5, the St. Olaf Board of Regents will meet on campus to discuss, among other items, the Executive Committee recommendation regarding use and development of farmland owned by the College.

The Executive Committee's recommendation follows a report compiled over the past year by Boldt Consulting Services (BSC), which set out to identify the value of St. Olaf's land assets. Their report does not include the natural lands to the west of campus or core campus grounds.

The Board of Regents commissioned the report to assist in planning for the college's future, while "protecting its resources" and main priority –- - the education of students.

The report by BCS divides the College's non-core lands into five parcels, based on location, roads and city lines. Two parcels, designated 'A' and 'B', lie north of the Northfield hospital. Three parcels, 'C', 'D' and 'E,' border the hospital and the natural lands. The 'F' parcel is located south of Highway 19, and is currently leased to commercial businesses (including Knecht's Nursery). The College receives income from renting these lands to farmers and small businesses.

The only immediate action that may be taken by the Board, if they follow the Executive Committee's recommendation, is that part of parcel F be preserved as permanent green space. In addition, the parcels around the hospital (C, D and E) may be considered for development at a future time, in a way that reflects the "mission and purposes of the College."

Also, under the new recommendations, parcels A and B would be professionally appraised, and their market value added to the College's endowment. The recommendation carefully stipulates that "in the event that the Investment Sub-Committee [of the Board] were to consider selling all or part of parcels A and B, that recommendation would be brought to the full Board for consideration."

President David Anderson e-mailed students and faculty last week to explain the Board's proposition and invite community feedback.

So far, much of what he has heard has been "expressions of thanks for the openness of the process." Anderson also attended a meeting of the Environmental Coalition on Monday night to explain the situation and answer questions.

Board of Regents Student Committee chair Magdalena Wells '08 says that there has not been as much student response to the issue as expected. There is a very vocal minority that has expressed concerns about the situation, she says, but "the majority of the student body is not engaged in this issue."

The BORSC is charged with reporting overall student opinion to the Board of Regents, and has completed a report that they will present on Friday morning. The committee conducted interviews, tabled outside the Caf, invited feedback on whiteboards in Buntrock and collected ideas via e-mail before compiling their report.

Wells said that while BORSC does not want to discourage students from voicing opinions about the issue, "It is a bit unfair to say the Board hasn't tried to make students aware of this issue."

Since last spring, Anderson has sent out periodical e-mails about the progress of the BCS report, and the Board has invited feedback from students and faculty.

In fact, one reason they are discussing the land use issue at their October meeting rather than a June meeting is so that the St. Olaf community can be more aware of the Board's actions, explained Wells.

Another challenge is that "we just graduated a whole class of people who know a lot about this issue" and who cannot participate in the feedback process as easily as current students can.

Wells also said that many people who have given feedback to BORSC are excited about the plans for part of parcel F to become a permanent green space or park.

Some people have also come forward with creative ideas about what could be done with parcels A-E, such as alumnus Gregory Bohrer '07's idea of putting bison on the land.

College Treasurer Alan Norton points out that all of the non-core lands used to be held as assets in the College's investment portfolios, until just about ten years ago. At that time, St. Olaf took the non-core lands out to develop part into the natural land preservation we have today (approx. 300 acres).

The rest of the land (about 350 acres) has been kept on the accounting books at the price the college paid at time of purchase. A professional appraisal of the 230 acres in parcels A and B could increase the land's book value by millions, which would go directly into the endowment.

Increasing St. Olaf's endowment is a major priority for both the board of regents and President Anderson. The endowment is essentially a large investment portfolio, which pays dividends based on size and market performance – and is also a factor in some national college rankings.

Although the St. Olaf endowment grew by $50 million last year alone, "our endowment per student is still one of the lowest in the nation among colleges of our quality," says Anderson. Last week, the endowment was at $326 million with an enrollment of about 3,000.

"The larger our endowment, the less pressure we have to increase tuition, the more money we have available for financial aid for students and the more money we have generally to achieve the mission of the college," Anderson said.

The board's recommendation is careful to point out that it will take no immediate action to sell St. Olaf lands. Any changes in development plans would be approved by the full board, carefully considering impact on both the college and the Northfield community.

For instance, one of the reasons St. Olaf leases land to the city for the hospital is because they recognized critical community need for a new medical care center ten years ago. The college still charges the same rent as if the land were farmland (although that lease rate is set to increase in the future to reflect the development of the land).

"The point is," Wells said, "none of these lands are going to be sold tomorrow. There will be many more discussions before anything is done."

This time, the Board is trying to handle things differently than what was done with the sale of WCAL. Many students thought that the administration acted in bad faith and failed to adequately communicate with the campus when deciding to sell WCAL. This is why they have been so focused on collecting community feedback and ideas.

"As students, we want more counselors, more parking lots and lower tuition," Wells said. "Frankly, it can't all be done, and the college makes extraordinarily good use of the resources is has."

Collection of community feedback will continue until the board votes on the current recommendations on Friday.

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