As the University of Minnesota Rochester outgrows its existing facilities, it faces one significant hurdle: Plans for a downtown campus in southwest Rochester are on pause.
The reason for the indefinite delay, as it is for almost everything else these days, is COVID-19, said UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell.
UMR is growing faster than projected. The plan was to construct its first building, in partnership with the YMCA, on its future campus on the south end of downtown by 2021. For years, UMR has been purchasing property and demolishing buildings in southwest Rochester to make way for the 10-acre campus.
Everything seemed to be a go. The all-purpose building was to include new classrooms, student housing, recreational and faculty space. A request for proposals had been sent out, a developer chosen, and plans were in place for a July groundbreaking.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the YMCA pulled out of the project. UMR tried to redesign the project without the Y's participation, but "it just didn't make sense," Carrell said.
"It's a disappointment as much to me as anybody in our community," Carrell said. "At the same time, we have to be responsible to our students. And trying to (build) something in a time of fluctuation without a partner was not wise."
Carrell said the partnership between UMR and the Y could be resurrected at some future point, when the pandemic is a thing of the past. The Y did not return a call seeking comment.
Unlike nearly all colleges and universities, UMR has shied away from the expense of building and owning its own buildings, instead relying on public-private partnerships to defray the cost of building the campus. Space is not the only challenge the Rochester university faces. The U system is in the midst of a hiring freeze.
In the meantime, UMR is scrambling to find ways to expand its footprint, either through renovation or the leasing of existing space, to keep student growth on an upward trajectory.
Possibilities include remodeling 318 Commons, including the now available Loop space, which until recently housed a bar and restaurant. It could include expanding its presence at Discovery Square. Another possibility is leasing commercial space downtown, which has become more available as the result of pandemic-induced business closures.
Currently, UMR occupies space in 318 Commons and One Discovery Square, as well as the top two floors at Galleria at University Square.
What UMR doesn't want to do, Carrell said, is stop growing.
"To stop growing when we have a successful model like this and when there is a workforce demand would be counter to progress," Carrell said. "We need to be creative, and we're good at that as a campus community. We'll find a way forward."