Growing pains: construction

Belmont is one of the fastest growing universities in the nation as recognized by The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, but the rising enrollment means Belmont’s campus is straining to accommodate growing class sizes.

From 2001 to 2011, Belmont’s student population increased 104 percent.

And this fall, the university reached 6,915 students with 1,409 graduate students and 5,506 undergraduates.

But what many people may not realize is that the line trajectory of student population has begun to flatten out, said university President Dr. Bob Fisher. “I mean we are not growing 9 or 8 or 7 or 6”  percent, he said.

“We were 4 percent last year, and we are 4 percent this year. That’s not big growth numbers in my experience. Those are just healthy moves,” Fisher said.

While the student population growth rate has slowed, other aspects of Belmont’s campus are experiencing significant growth spurts.

From construction to the endowment rate, the university is seeing growth, but not without some growing pains.

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Kevin Sanders, a recent graduate and alumni regent on Belmont’s Board of Trustees, can’t recall a time during his four years that there wasn’t some sort of construction going on.

“We had a saying that ‘you can tell time by the horns and the blasting,’” he said.

Sanders was at Belmont from the fall of 2007 to May 2011 as McWhorter, Potter Hall, Bear House and Patton Hall were being built. But it was in 2001, following the hiring of Dr. Bob Fisher as university president, that the rush of constant construction truly began – a rush recent alumni and current students know all too well.

The Curb Event Center and Beaman Student Life Center complex is the first building that was part of the university’s boom, which has extended to include numerous other projects.

“I was counting it up in a dream the other night – it was 17” buildings, Fisher said.

The buildings that Fisher counts in that number include the significant remodeling of the McAfee Concert Hall and Troutt Theater and the addition of the Blackbox Theater, Curb Event Center, Beaman Student Life Center, Gordon E. Inman Center, McWhorter Hall, Potter Hall, Patton Hall, Bear House, Randall and Sadie Baskin Center, Wedgewood Academic Center, Kennedy Hall, Dickens Hall, Horrell Hall, the new academic and dining services complex, the new residence hall and an addition to the Hillside apartments.

Belmont is nearing $500 million for the cost of all the building projects. And prior to the building boom and the hiring of Fisher, the university had much smaller ambitions.

At the time of Fisher’s interview for the presidency, Belmont aspired to be a liberal arts college that would not grow beyond 3,000 students.

That changed once a conversation took place between Fisher and the search committee.

Fisher pointed out that the student population cap was limiting the university’s potential based on the types of professional programs Belmont houses like business and nursing.

The board eventually agreed with his observations, leading to the building boom.

At the time of the conversation, Fisher admits he had a certain scale in mind for the projects but wasn’t sure what that would look like in terms of numbers.

“I had that in mind but what I don’t think people understand is that even if you have a Ph.D in economics and you can do the math, you still can’t figure out exactly what is the right number of what we should have of students,” Fisher said.

At the beginning of this process, Fisher believed that number might be 5,000 or 6,000 students but admits that now he doesn’t know what that number is but feels that “we’ll all know it and hear it when we get there.”

This, of course, has left some people a little apprehensive throughout the process.

“In caution, I’ve been hearing that since we hit 3,500 that we are too big, that we are growing too fast, that we need to slow down,” Fisher said.

“So far it’s been, I don’t think so. That’s the gas pedal,” he said. “Floor it.”

And Sanders sees the growth as beneficial, not only for the university, but for himself too.

“My perspective has always been that this is a great thing for Belmont,” he said. “More growth, and the kind of growth they are doing, increases the value of the school and increases the value of my degree.”

Currently, the campus is undergoing “the most intense construction we’ve ever had” with three projects taking place at once: the building of the residence hall on 15th Avenue, Wedgewood Academic Center and the new academic and dining services complex, Fisher said.

Included in the costs for these projects are the investment of chairs and tables for classrooms as well as the actual moving costs from Wheeler and Hitch to Wedgewood, said Steve Lasley, vice president of finances and operations.

“That’s usually part of the money we set aside for the building to get everyone out of the old and into the new,” Lasley said. “So really we take everything out the old building that we can salvage and move it into the new so equipment, furniture and things that are still good get moved.”

Professors in Hitch and Wheeler have already been asked to decide what goes and what stays in their offices for the upcoming move.

Two of the three buildings will be completed and open next fall and the new academic center and cafeteria will be completed in time for fall 2015, which, according to Fisher, means that blasting is “over for a long time at this campus.”

Belmont has been very careful to protect new buildings from the almost-constant blasting for the ongoing projects.

Fisher was only able to think of one recent instance where blasting cause slight damage on campus.

“We were blasting for the new parking garage right next to Baskin. One day, the blast got a little too close to the wall and things fell down on some cars. Some concrete blocks cracked and dust fell on some cars,” he said. “It wasn’t major damage, it was like scratches and small dents and obviously we paid for that too.”

Lasley remembered another incident a few years back.

 “We had a shock get away when we were blasting for McWhorter and it caused rocks to come out and broke some windows in Inman, and it didn’t hurt anybody but it didn’t hurt any buildings either just broke some windows,” he said.

“And that’s about the only issues we’ve had with blasting in the past 10 years.”

Even with the end of more apparent construction woes like blasting and blocking of routes, the constant construction for the last 12 years has other long-standing implications.

To pay for the boom of construction, Belmont had to issue bonds to cover the remaining costs for buildings after seeking donations and fundraising was completed.

“We have a lot of bonds outstanding,” Lasley said. “We are over $100 million in outstanding bond issues.”

The university has a pay schedule for each bond and works to retire them early, which, according Lasley, is on the books following the completion of the current projects.

Retiring debt is not the only financial aspect Belmont will be focusing on following the completion of this round of projects. Lasley and Fisher both mentioned that the university hopes to look at increasing the endowment.

Check back tomorrow for the follow-up “growing pains” story about Belmont’s focus on endowment.

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