The renovation of a 70-year old science building at Montana State University Billings took another step closer toward completion. The Montana Board of Regents on Wednesday authorized the campus to spend just over $17 million dollars on the project before the regents joined students, donors and others for a ceremonial groundbreaking.
Just before the ceremony started, the sprinklers turned on and sprayed water on guests and speakers. Undeterred, Billings Mayor Bill Cole laid a chair over a couple of the sprinkler heads and after a brief delay, the event got underway.
Cole said the city of Billings was among the 500 donors who contributed money toward this project because MSU Billings helps drive the economy and trains the needed workforce.
“The city knows this is the future of Billings,” he said. “Billings has to fill 50,000 jobs, we estimate in the next 10 years or so, we estimate.”
Many of those will be jobs, Cole said, need workers with skills in the sciences, technology, engineering or mathematics, aka STEM. He said Billings needs more workers in the health care field, for example.
He and others said this new Science and Allied Health Building will help train that future workforce with state of the art laboratories and classrooms.
MSU Billings student Savannah Merritt is a double major in biology and chemistry. She said she spends most of her time in this building that was constructed in the 1940’s.
‘I think the biggest thing that people on the outside don’t see is that we took our final with the roof caving in,” she said.
She told the regents, meeting at MSU Billings, there were buckets in the hallway to collect dripping water. The existing Science Building, constructed in 1947, is the largest deferred maintenance project on the MSU Billings campus and needs fixes to bring it up to code, and for life safety and other reasons.
“I didn’t think that I would ever get to see a science building be built. It was just a rumor,” said Merritt. “So, to have that actually be happening is kinda a big thing to me. So, it’s really important.”
The renovation and expansion project started with the 63rd Montana Legislature. It was just one of the capital projects included in House Bill 5. Lawmakers appropriated $10 million contingent on a local match of $5 million.
In 2013, The MSU Billings Foundation was charged with raising that local match. The task came after the Foundation wrapped up a multi-million dollar scholarship campaign. The $5 million goal was finally met over this summer, but by that time the price tag rose from the initial estimate of $15 million to some $18 million.
Changes were made to the design plans to reduce the cost, but additional money was needed. That’s when the MSU Billings student government stepped up and last December approved spending $2.1 million in student fees to help push the donations to the new goal.
The Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved, with Vice Chair Bob Nystuen abstaining citing a potential conflict of interest because of his work in the banking industry, to allow MSU Billings to use of those student fees, the state appropriation, and the local match of donations and grants.
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s business the regents joined the campus and Billings community to celebrate this action. Just before the speeches started, the sprinklers – on a timer – went off, on the lawn where the ceremonial groundbreaking was to take place.
Eventually someone came to shut off the sprinklers, but MSU Billings Foundation President and CEO Bill Kennedy made light of the situation as he told the over two dozen people to ready their shovels, “with the ground being wet and ready to go I ask you all, take a shovel and dig it up.” With that instruction, the representatives stuck their gold spray-painted shovels into lawn and turned over the damp soil on the grass.
The state budget director will also have to sign off on the project before the real work begins.