MINNEAPOLIS -- The University of Minnesota Board of Regents unanimously approved a $240 million wish list of building projects on Friday, with a heavy emphasis on maintaining and upgrading existing buildings.
The request asks the Legislature to approve $193.3 million in bonds plus $46.7 million in bonds from the university.
About $100 million will go toward assorted big-ticket projects at existing buildings, such as roof work, increasing accessibility and improving energy efficiency.
President Robert Bruininks acknowledged the critics who say the university shouldn't be spending on capital projects when its budgets are so tight, but said it had to be done.
"That capital infrastructure really matters. That's where our students study and our staff works," he said.
Besides, he said, the current low interest rates and slowdown in the construction industry can shave millions off some building projects.
Further delaying maintenance on the university's aging infrastructure will increase costs in the future. "We have some of the oldest buildings in the state," he said, noting that 25 percent of the buildings on the Twin Cities campus are more than 70 years old.
Regent Steven Hunter, who is also the secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, noted the recession has hit the building trades particularly hard, so the university's lobbyists should remind lawmakers the hiring for the $100 million in renovation projects can start immediately after the money flows.
The university also wants to spend $34.5 million to renovate Folwell Hall on the Twin Cities campus to provide better support for foreign language programs in the College of Liberal Arts and make $10 million in general laboratory renovations.
The largest new construction project is $80 million for a new building for research into physics and nanotechnology, an emerging field that allows scientists to manipulate materials at the molecular level.
Nanomaterials are becoming more widely used in industry. Bruininks said the state economy needs the capacity to make advances in the field. "We need to build the core infrastructure the state needs to compete," he said.
The university's current physics laboratories are nearly 80 years old and obsolete, according to information prepared for the regents. Bruininks stressed that excellent facilities are needed to attract top researchers.
"I could give you story after story about how we were able to recruit world-class people here to do world-class work because we had the facilities," he told the regents.
The plan approved Friday also calls for spending $10 million for a new American Indian Learning Resource Center at the university's Duluth campus and $5.5 million for renovations at the Itasca Biological Station at Itasca State Park.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)