By BRENNA SWIFT
The Union Democrat
When the Yosemite Community College District passed a $326 million bond measure in 2004, one of the largest school bond measures in California that year, Columbia College culinary students hoped to get new digs out of the deal.
Nine years later, the college plans to spend $9.2 million in bond money renovating the top floor of the building where the hospitality management program is housed - the floor that contains, among other things, college administrators' offices.
The college district's Board of Trustees in March budgeted another $325,000 for the renovation of Manzanita's Academic Achievement Center, a tutoring center also on the top floor.
The well-regarded hospitality management program, which has trained the chefs at many local restaurants and beyond, will remain in its tight space on the bottom floor of the Manzanita Building until Columbia College is able to give it more room.
"It was kind of a shock to hear that nothing was going to the hospitality program," said Jason Romano, of Sonora, a Columbia graduate and culinary instructor. "It would have been nice … We catered all the ribbon-cutting events for the other (new) buildings."
Culinary classes occupy some of the most valuable real estate on the Columbia College campus. The 31,183-square-foot Manzanita Building, overlooking the San Diego Reservoir, has always been the school's centerpiece. It's also front and center in the college's plan to spend the $17 million that remains from its share of Measure E, the 2004 bond measure.
The top-floor redesign will start in spring 2014, after staff members scatter to other buildings and make room for construction. Another outdated structure, the Sequoia Building, will get a $1.3 million overhaul for math classes.
Design work on Manzanita hasn't finished yet, and project plans still need approval from the Yosemite Community College District Board of Trustees, said district spokesman Nick Stavrianoudakis.
But the Manzanita renovation's estimated cost to Columbia has more than tripled over earlier projections of $2.8 million.
The economic downturn ruined plans to get state funding, so more bond money is being used instead, said Judy Lanchester, Columbia's assistant director of Facilities Planning and Operations.
If the Manzanita and Academic Achievement Center renovations end up using their entire budgets, which Lanchester said is unlikely, their combined cost for each square foot in the building will be about $307.
College officials are pitching the plan as a way to create a "one-stop shop" for student services like counseling, registration and financial aid, all typically found in a student center.
Many of those functions are already in Manzanita but difficult to locate because of the building's complicated layout.
Opened in 1969, the circular building has been partitioned and re-partitioned into administrative space. Columbia history professor Ted Hamilton described it as a "rabbit warren" of tiny offices.
"When it's finished, we're going to have a much nicer experience for students in a lot of ways," said John Leamy, a Columbia College math professor and president of the school's Academic Senate.
Romano said the hospitality program, which serves about 250 people a week through catering and the Cellar Bistro restaurant, still lacks a walk-in refrigerator and could use another classroom.
But that's not currently in the cards for Measure E money, even though a renovated space for the culinary program was described in a district "Facilities Master Plan" drawn up in 2004.
Also on ice is the Columbia College center in Calaveras County that appeared on the 2004 ballot proposition for the bond measure.
College officials said plans for the center are still up in the air because bond money can only pay for construction, not staffing, and state funding is too uncertain.
"To build something that we can't staff or maintain is pretty short-sighted," said Leamy, who described faculty as heavily involved in the planning process for bond money.
So the main focus for Measure E money remains on the Manzanita renovation, which is set to give the college president and other administrators new offices. That counts as "student services" too, Lanchester said.
And therein lies the rub for some of the project's critics. The most vocal has sent emails to the entire Columbia College staff, calling it a "wasteful disaster" that will benefit college officials rather than students.
She signed the mass emails as "Tami Grandstaff," but The Union Democrat's efforts to locate her were unsuccessful.
The idea that Manzanita renovation is about "administrative palaces" is a misconception, Hamilton said.
Columbia art professor Laurie Sylwester said other Measure E projects have gone well, but that she was "no fan" of the Manzanita plans, chiefly because the buildings' central rotunda may shrink.
"Many cultural exhibitions which have influenced students for the past 40 years have been staged here," she said.
Students have argued for keeping the rotunda at three-fourths of its original size rather than shrinking it even more, said Matthew Christman, vice president of the Associated Students of Columbia College.
Some college employees said the renovation is badly needed, especially since the building's mechanical systems are antiquated.
"We're happy to see something being done about this," said Wendy Hesse, an accounting technician who works on the top floor. "I am a little disappointed that it looks like they're not doing much with the downstairs … those areas have a lot of student impact."
Cost is the reason the bottom floor can't be gutted, Lanchester said. She said moving culinary classes with all their equipment would be "very difficult and expensive to do while renovation is being done."
Former Yosemite Community College District trustee Pat Dean said she had "no objections" to the Manzanita renovation, which she thinks will help Columbia retain first-year students.
Meanwhile, Calaveras County residents seem resigned to the fact they won't get a satellite campus soon, though the college plans to offer courses in existing buildings in Angels Camp.
"Do I think it would benefit the students and community? Yes, I do," said Bret Harte Union High School District Superintendent Mike Chimente, who voted for Measure E in 2004. "However, I understand the rationale behind not moving forward with this. I think Columbia College is doing everything they can to provide service to our communities."
All but one of Columbia's earlier bond buildings came in under budget, in part because the recession lowered the cost of construction, Lanchester said. The savings are helping fund the Manzanita renovation.
The 33,661-square-foot Sugar Pine Science and Natural Resources building finished at $17.9 million, $4.5 million under budget.
The Laurel Child Development and Family Services Center, which has five integrated buildings, finished at $8.9 million when its budget was $9.2 million.
Still, Columbia would have needed more than twice its $52.5 million share of thebond funds to build all the projects proposed in the 2004 master plan, including a performing arts center estimated at $30.6 million.
Most of the money - about $220 million - is going to Modesto Junior College, which is also part of the Yosemite Community College District.
Another $73.6 million is earmarked for the college district's "Central Services," a total that got a $20 million boost from interest earned on bond proceeds, according to Stavrianoudakis.
"Central Services" projects include a new Yosemite Community College District office in Modesto, technology infrastructure and maintenance on each college campus.
"I am happy with what they've done so far with the money," Christman said. "I know there's only so much and it can only go so far."
It remains to be seen whether students will be as happy with the top-floor Manzanita renovation, but that's all they're going to get - for now.
"A new building would cost more," Dean said. "In my opinion, it will be years if we have another bond (measure) to build more buildings."