When University of Alaska Southeast student Josh Horst first arrived at the Juneau campus four years ago, he wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
He saw classrooms housed in two poorly ventilated, portable buildings installed 20 years ago as temporary facilities. And it made him question the legitimacy of the school, said Horst, who serves on the University of Alaska Board of Regents.
"There's a question of the legitimacy of a campus when you're in these portable rooms and you walk in at 9 in the morning and it's cold - and you have to be the one to turn the knob ... to warm the room up," said Horst, speaking to a crowd on campus this morning.
Nearly 80 people huddled in frigid temperatures for a groundbreaking ceremony, marking an end to an era of temporary buildings and the birth of a new classroom complex. The new 22,000 square-foot wing will stretch from the Egan Library to the bus turnaround and house 16 classrooms plus a 150-seat auditorium-style lecture hall. It will complement 13 other buildings used for classes, housing, administration and other services.
"Suddenly we're going to turn a beautiful and functional educational strip mall into a campus," said UA President Mark Hamilton. "This will be - by the end of this decade - an absolute jewel."
The ceremony today was the culmination of a 10-year struggle for funding, and the struggle is not over. Although lawmakers appropriated $5.5 million last year, the school still needs $2.5 million to complete the project.
Gov. Tony Knowles did not include the extra funding in this year's capital budget, instead proposing a $6 million appropriation to fix existing university buildings, said spokesman Bob King.
"We need to take care of the health and safety concerns with existing buildings," said King. "We thought that was a priority."
However, Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson said he's relatively confident he can persuade his GOP colleagues in the majority to add the extra construction money to this year's budget.
"The signals I have gotten so far have been very constructive, so I think we're on a positive swing here," said Hudson, who serves on the House Finance Committee.
In the meantime, contractors will build the structure in two phases - first erecting the shell and enclosing it. The first phase is scheduled for completion by late December. If the state does not authorize funding for the second phase, construction crews will go idle, said UAS Chancellor John Pugh.
"We would have to wait," said Pugh. "But we're very optimistic we will get it."
Juneau contractor Coogan Construction was scheduled to break ground tomorrow, but the ground is frozen. Crews probably won't get into full swing until next week, said contractor Lloyd Coogan.
Mother Nature also monkeyed with today's groundbreaking ceremony. The earth was frozen so hard the ceremonial shovels could not penetrate it. The school had to haul in a load of sand and a dozen civic leaders tossed that around instead. Then an onlooker broke from the audience, took a shovel and hacked a hole in the icy earth.
"It's supposed to be groundbreaking," he said, motioning to the dignitaries shoveling sand behind him. "Everyone else is just playing in the dirt."
Kathy Dye may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org