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College construction is helping boost economy

Little did they know it back in 2004, but Yosemite Community College District voters who approved Measure E were not only improving Modesto Junior College and Columbia College, but doing their part for the future economy.

In a time when housing starts are down and the construction industry is flat, projects funded by the $326 million bond issue are bringing jobs and cash to both the valley and foothill economies.

A $2.8 million fire station remodel and construction of a $9.1 million Child Development Center are scheduled for construction this year at Columbia College. In Modesto, the bond funds are now building an 888-seat, $19 million auditorium on MJC's East Campus.

Columbia has already completed a much-needed secondary access road and a parking lot loop for public transit buses. Still in the offing is construction of a $22.4 million Science Natural Resources Center with new classrooms and labs, and remodels of the Madrone ($3.4 million) and Manzanita ($2.8 million) buildings.

Construction of projects on the Columbia campus will be fueling the economy through at least 2010. More than $7 million on bond funds have also been set aside for purchase and development of a satellite campus near Angels Camp.

The 17,247 Tuolumne and Calaveras county voters who said yes to Measure E — comfortably over the 55 percent required for passage — proved remarkably prescient. While enrollment at area high schools and elementary schools has been dropping, attendance at Columbia is relatively stable.

This fall it hit 3,325 students, down only 50 from the previous year's count, but higher than 2005's. With tuition, room and board at some four-year schools topping $40,000, community colleges are a bargain. For the $20 per academic unit they pay (about $240 a semester for a full load), Columbia College students get small classes, excellent instructors and one of the most beautiful campuses in California's community college system.

Increasing enrollment was a key argument for passage of the 2004 bond issue, officially titled "The Local Community College Repair and Overcrowding Measure." Backers pointed out that the Columbia campus was built in 1968 for 1,500 students — a number that has more than doubled and will likely continue to grow.

For voters, paying about $40 per year in new taxes over 30 years it (based on a home value of $250,000) was an investment in education.

That it will also boost the economy during a major downturn in residential construction is an unanticipated benefit. Few voters in the heady days of 2004 could have foreseen what would happen to the Mother Lode's then-booming housing industry.

In Tuolumne County, home starts have plunged by more than half. In 2004, the Building Department issued permits for 415 single-family residences together valued at $82.4 million. Last year the totals were 186 permits valued at $47.8 million.

Construction of $52.5 million in college projects — Columbia's multi-year share of Measure E proceeds — will certainly help.

Although law requires that contracts be awarded to the lowest qualified bidders, college spokesman Doug Lau said the administration is doing what it can to help local contractors. Chief Operations Officer Connie Mical pointed out that the Child Development Center has design standards close to those of residential construction, providing "a better opportunity for local contractors to bid."

More good news: Because of the scarcity of work, contractors' bids on bond projects have been competitive and so far costs have been under budget. The district-wide citizens committee overseeing the projects includes four Tuolumne and Calaveras residents. It has been chaired from the outset by Richard "Duke" York of Jamestown.

Measure E would have been good for the community and its future at any time. The even better news is that campus construction is now shifting into high gear when our local economies can use the injection during the lower tourism months.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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