As the state faces a $4 billion fiscal gap, Gov. Bill Walker and state legislators have made no bones about the fact that there’s little money for capital spending. Certainly, that’s a wise policy. The state is scrambling to find ways to pay for billions of dollars in operating expenses, so new construction projects are naturally a distant priority. But among the items on which the state could spend its limited resources, one stands out as an item that should take precedence over spending like that proposed for the Anchorage Legislative Information Office: the half-finished University of Alaska Fairbanks engineering building.
The building, now enclosed but largely empty, requires just short of $35 million to complete — the first phases of its construction were funded a few years ago thanks to strong work by the university and Interior legislators. They convinced other state lawmakers that to meet state demand for high-paying, high-skill jobs with Alaskans rather than imported labor, someone needed to train that workforce within the state. It was an inexplicably tough sell to a group that was perfectly willing to spend more than $100 million on a new sports arena for Anchorage that the university considered a low priority. Ultimately, however, Interior delegation members managed to secure about half the money to build the engineering facility, as well as an understanding that the remainder of the funding would come through the next year. But in 2013, two weeks after groundbreaking on the building began, the Legislature opted to fund only a fraction of the remaining funding, $15 million instead of the $48.3 million needed. After that year, funding dried up altogether.
The result was a beautiful edifice of glass, steel and concrete at the prow of College Hill that was meant as a monument to the state’s commitment to education, a strong resource economy and the people to build it. It has instead been a monument — so far — to the danger of trusting the Legislature’s commitment to those ideals. When it is finished, the institution that has often been described as an economic engine for the state will have added another cylinder. Until then, the more than $60 million already put into its construction is essentially languishing in a pile for all to see above the intersection of University Avenue and College Road.
Make no mistake, $35 million isn’t small change, and it won’t be easy to find the money to devote to completing the building. But a facility unfinished is a promise broken, and the sooner that promise is kept, the university can better help the state to produce the talented young people to secure its economic future.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,