With the main building to its proposed campus on pause due to the pandemic even as its student numbers are surging, the University of Minnesota Rochester has been scanning the city for places to grow.

On Monday, UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell asked the Rochester City Council to release $2.4 million in local sales tax to renovate The Loop, a shuttered downtown restaurant, into a student lounge and cafeteria.

The dollars will also convert UMR's current student lounge on the second floor of 318 Commons into badly needed faculty offices and student study areas. The council approved the request 5-1, with council member Michael Wojcik voting against.

Unlike most colleges and universities, the 950-student school is growing, and its expansion is creating an acute need for housing, classrooms and faculty spaces. Without the room to grow, the health care-focused school is faced with the prospect of rejecting applications at a time when demand is rising.

"Our applications are really great now," Carrell said. "We have a lot of high academic achievers who want to be in health care. We don't want to ever turn away qualified students."

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Plans to build a major new facility in Southwest Rochester in partnership with the YMCA were designed to address many of the school's growth needs. But when the Y pulled out of the project over pandemic-related concerns, it left the plans on the drawing board, and it set UMR officials scrambling to find space.

It has required UMR to be even more improvisational than usual as it looks for community partners to keep its growth on track.

The 4,700-square-foot Loop restaurant, located on the street level of the 318 Common Complex where many UMR students are housed, closed last July as business plummeted from the pandemic and downtown construction.

The Loop, which closed last July, in downtown Rochester Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. University of Minnesota Rochester hopes to renovate the space for use as a student lounge and cafeteria. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
The Loop, which closed last July, in downtown Rochester Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. University of Minnesota Rochester hopes to renovate the space for use as a student lounge and cafeteria. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

The proposed renovation projects would address part of the school's space needs, but not all of them. UMR is also on the lookout for classrooms, faculty-student spaces and housing. Carrell said a second request for sales tax monies is likely to follow to address those issues.

One possibility is renting space in Two Discovery Square, a building project in Southwest Rochester that is scheduled to be completed by mid-2021. The proposed building is located next to One Discovery Square, which houses two UMR state-of-the-art lab classrooms.

"There are new spaces coming available in downtown Rochester, but we need our space soon," Carrell said.

UMR is unique among higher education institutions in that it can tap city funds made available through a half-cent local option sales tax. Nearly all other public universities rely on state legislatures to fund building projects.

Rochester voters have supported the sales tax through the years for the UMR campus project and other major infrastructure needs.

The $2.4 million sought by UMR comes from a designated UMR fund estimated at $7 million, Carrell said.

Although officials are calling the expansion effort an "interim plan," the decisions made over the next several months will likely impact the school's long-term plans. Space found for new classrooms and labs, for example, would involve long-term leases and lessen the need for their inclusion in the main building planned for the new campus.

"It just changes what will be needed in the new building that is ultimately built," Carrell said.