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Joint Finance Committee releases aid for communities losing 2-year UW schools

WEDC to offer up to $2M in grants to communities affected by campus closures

A newspaper is pinned to a bulletin board in a hallway. A headline says "Loss of campus is heartbreaking."
A newspaper page hangs on a billboard Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Communities that have lost a two-year Universities of Wisconsin branch campus will be eligible for up to $2 million in grants.

The state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved releasing $20 million to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for a grant program to assist communities in redeveloping shuttered campuses. 

Six two-year campuses in the Universities of Wisconsin system are closed or have announced closures due to declining enrollment and budget shortfalls. The closings are affecting communities in Outagamie, Fond du Lac, Washington, Richland, Marinette and Waukesha counties.

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The grants can be used by cities, towns, villages or counties for redevelopment costs including planning and demolition expenses, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The grants may also be used for projects on former campuses that help create jobs, develop the local workforce, support small businesses or boost housing, according to the fiscal bureau.

The law funding the assistance to communities requires WEDC to award grants to Fond du Lac, Washington, Marinette and Richland counties, as long as they satisfy the requirements, the Fiscal Bureau said.

The money had been essentially in limbo since March, when Gov. Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill into law setting those funds aside for communities affected by branch campus closures.

In May, Evers and WEDC asked the Legislature to release the funding, calling it “critically important” for communities to find new life for shuttered campuses. Evers also called on the Legislature to increase investment in the state university system to prevent further layoffs and closures.

Now that the funding has been released, WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes said the agency hopes to open grant applications by Aug. 1.

“We realize that communities are looking for these funds and we want to get the ball rolling as quickly as we can,” she said.

Hughes also said releasing the funds gives the state an opportunity to support communities that are seeing “major changes” as a result of campus closures. 

She said local officials are not only worried about the buildings and properties, but they have additional challenges from the loss of students.

“We want to invest in these communities to make sure they have some resources to move through this change,” she said.

The Joint Finance Committee vote came just days before the first meeting of a state Legislative Council Study Committee on the Future of the University of Wisconsin System. The committee will examine demographic trends affecting state colleges and evaluate university needs.

A student sits at a table and reads a book. A lunchbox and water bottle are next to her.
Biology student Aliyah Sander studies in the student center in between classes Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

At Tuesday’s meeting, state Rep. Deb Andraca, D-Whitefish Bay, said she was pleased the committee was moving forward with providing assistance to affected communities.

But she also called for the Legislature to make sure remaining campuses are “fully funded” because they serve as economic drivers for Wisconsin.

“I’d like to see more support from this committee going forward and into the next budget,” Andraca said. “That means when we have requests — when there are things that need to get done, and there’s money put aside in the budget — we’re not holding it up and making the campuses wait for a very long time.”

Communities already planning for the future

The most recent two-year campus to announce it will close is UW-Oshkosh Fox Cities in Menasha, with buildings co-owned by Outagamie and Winnebago counties, where in-person classes will end next June.

That school’s board of trustees met last month to begin discussing the future of the school, but WGBA-TV reports the meeting ended with more questions than answers.

In Fond du Lac County, in-person classes officially ended in May at UW-Oshkosh Fond du Lac and officials have been discussing next steps for the campus since last year.

County Executive Sam Kaufman said he presented a plan last month that would convert the two-year college into what’s being called the “Fond du Lac County Campus.” 

The site would convert some classrooms to state and county offices, turn the performing arts center into a community events center, convert the gymnasium into a sports complex and sell some land parcels for housing development, Kaufman said.

It would also convert an art building into a training center for correctional officers that would complement the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office’s use of force training simulator, the county executive said.

“This would be a facility that would be open not only to Fond du Lac County law enforcement, but we would be expanding it to basically any law enforcement agency from Milwaukee all the way up to Green Bay,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman said the Fond du Lac County Board will vote on the plan later this month. He said the proposal would generate enough revenue to be self-sufficient and not a burden on local taxpayers.

While a $2 million redevelopment grant will not cover the entire cost of the project, Kaufman said knowing the county could expect that help from the state made it easier to develop plans for the facility.

“I already made decisions and plans in regards to how we fund the remaining amount,” Kaufman said. “The $2 million will definitely assist. It will not be the answer to us, but it will definitely assist us.”