DENVER – Colorado’s $30.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year has been signed into law, but it does not include $25 million in funding for Fort Lewis College’s planned expansion of its Whalen Gymnasium and health sciences program.
Although legislators had cut funding in March for the project, among the most expensive on a list of state capital development projects, FLC officials remained hopeful that Whalen could be squeezed into to the budget before it hit Gov. Jared Polis’ desk last week. But weeks of negotiations have changed nothing for FLC, which must renew its attempts to secure state funding next year.
“Basically, the process just ran out of time and ran out of money,” said Steve Schwartz, FLC’s vice president for finance and administration. “And we are very disappointed.”
A $57.5 million plan to expand Whalen gym has been in the works since 2017, when FLC announced the project as part of an effort to support one of its fastest-expanding programs, exercise science, which has overcrowded classrooms and limited facilities. Lawmakers initially greenlighted the project in 2018, when they granted FLC $3 million in 2018 for the design and engineering of Whalen’s expansion.
But for Southwest Colorado, the project is much more than a gym expansion: FLC has billed it as a recruitment tool to boost its consistently declining student population, and in Durango, it promises to bring jobs and much-needed professional development to an isolated area.
“This is an economic impact that goes beyond the education level,” said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
Llewellyn sees the decision to not fund Whalen as yet another blow dealt to rural and Western Colorado by lawmakers, who have recently passed new oil and gas regulations and gun control measures that have been wildly unpopular in Southwest Colorado.
The expansion would include a name change to the Whalen Academic and Athletic Complex, creating teaching labs and facilities for the exercise science program, a yoga and dance studio, expanded athletic and shared spaces between the exercise science and athletic programs, and a new entrance on the east side, closer to parking lots.
But Whalen’s updated facilities also promise professional development for young people normally relegated to working several jobs to afford living in Southwest Colorado. Instead, Llewellyn says, graduates of FLC’s health sciences program can look forward to jobs at local hospitals and can satisfy the region’s need for healthcare workers to care for its aging population.
At the end of last year, FLC’s Whalen project had been fourth on the Colorado Department of Education’s list of dozens of requests from universities around the state. As the list of priorities made its way through the governor’s office and the Capital Development committee, Whalen fell to sixth, 14th and then 15th on the list.
Then in March, the powerful Joint Budget Committee awarded more than $178 million to 12 capital development projects, including requests from Colorado State University, Colorado School of Mines, University of Colorado Denver and Front Range Community College, according to legislative documents. But none of the funding went to higher education requests on the Western Slope.
Ultimately the project was a casualty of diminished state revenue forecasts and a host of controversial bills – oil and gas reforms, sex education and gun control among them – that, at times, shutdown down proceedings or dominated debates.
But FLC remains committed to getting Whalen state funding. The university has already pledged to match 10 percent of the state’s $25 million, half of which has already been raised.
“We will work with legislators, invite them down here, so they can see what the need is,” said Schwartz.