, , ,

GOP bill would set aside money for communities impacted by UW campus closures

Legislation comes 2 months after classes ceased at Richland Center campus due to low enrollment

Bare trees stand tall above a small brown brick building. Hills can be seen in the background.
Classes are held at Melvill Hall on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

It’s been two months since classes ceased at a University of Wisconsin System campus in Richland Center. Now, two state lawmakers from the area are hoping to provide financial assistance to that community and others facing similar fates.

In-person classes at UW-Platteville Richland ended July 1, after enrollment had reached just 60 students. The campus isn’t technically closed, but Richland County Board Chair Marty Brewer says the county-owned buildings and 135-acre campus are mostly vacant.

“I toured the thing the other night and I got a lump in my throat because in the student union, they still had bulletin boards up (asking students) to run for student council,” Brewer said.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

State Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, will soon introduce legislation establishing $2 million in grant funding from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for Richland County to help local officials plan for the future of what locals have long called UW-Richland.

“I think the state, in my humble opinion, does have a role in this,” Kurtz told Wisconsin Public Radio.

The bill would also set aside two additional grants of $2 million for other communities in the event the UW System opts to end classes at other two-year branch campuses. Kurtz said he doesn’t have any inside info on potential closures.

“I think it would help not only Richland Center, but unfortunately, I think there’s going to be other campuses that close,” Kurtz said.

Between fall 2018 and fall 2022, enrollment at the 13 branch campuses — which were once part of their own system called UW Colleges and Extension — has fallen by nearly 48 percent to 5,075 students.

The colleges were designed for students to get two-year associates degrees before transferring to a four-year state university. Now, many Wisconsin Technical College System schools offer those degrees and the number of high school graduates in Wisconsin going to college altogether has been falling.

Richland County has been holding talks with the UW System on what to do about a 75-year memorandum of agreement outlining the county’s role in maintaining the buildings and property and the UW’s role in maintaining instructional staff, administrators and students.

Brewer said he appreciates the effort by lawmakers trying to get funding to help Richland County determine whether redeveloping the seven, mostly unused, buildings at the shuttered campus would be more economically feasible than razing them and selling the property to developers.

“Those are things we just don’t know at this point,” Brewer said. “So, this would go a long way in getting us at least in a position to be able to make plans for the future.”

While the $2 million in state funds would go a long way, Brewer said, “in no way would we consider that this makes us whole for the loss of the campus.”

He said some fellow members of the Richland County Board feel the UW System should have to pay for lost economic activity the small campus could have generated in future years, which some have calculated to be upwards of $54 million. Others, Brewer said, have presented estimates of around $1.5 million.

“We don’t want to bring the University of Wisconsin to its knees and we don’t want to cause undue financial hardships to them,” Brewer said. “But by the same token, the county of Richland relied upon them to maintain a campus there, and they quit doing it, basically.”

Brewer said some talks with the UW have been optimistic. Other times, not so much.

“What I’d like to do is strike a deal with them where we can walk away with their heads high, and they can walk away with their heads high, you know?” Brewer said.

With another 17 years left on the MOA between the county and the UW System, Brewer said the campus is in limbo for now.