Local business leaders joined the Arizona Board of Regents on Thursday in calling on the Legislature to pour $1.4 billion into campus construction they say would lay the groundwork for future innovation and jump-start the state's sagging construction industry.
The regents threw their formal support behind the plan, which would create new science buildings at University of Arizona, expand the Phoenix biomedical campus and fund repairs to several buildings, during a meeting held at UA.
The heads of the state's three universities, along with researchers, economists and local business leaders, made their case for the proposal, saying it could turn around Arizona's construction economy and build facilities needed to accommodate burgeoning enrollment and biomedical research.
The package is on the table as part of next year's state budget negotiations, but regents said they're not sure whether lawmakers will pay for it as they try to determine how to overcome a projected revenue shortfall of close to $2 billion.
Lawmakers have to shift their thinking about the project and see it as an investment that will yield future economic rewards, rather than viewing it as another cost in next year's budget, Regent Fred DuVal said.
Besides bringing in future revenue, the proposal will create 14,438 jobs as a direct result of the construction, said Regent President Fred Boice.
The board predicts 16,660 more jobs will be created indirectly.
"It's a unique opportunity to create jobs," Boice said.
The proposal makes good business sense for lawmakers, as slow economic times often are the best point to make critical investments that could better position the state for the future, said Ronald E. Shoopman, president ofthe Southern Arizona Leadership Council.
By fielding high-end researchers and industry associated with it, the state will be better able to diversify its economy, shielding itself from future declines should the home building market falter again, said Dennis Hoffman, an Arizona State University economics professor.
The largest item on the proposal would set $470 million aside for UA's medical school campus in downtown Phoenix. It also would fund $327million in construction of a new environmental and natural sciences building in Tucson.
ASU would get $329 million for construction while Northern Arizona would get $311 million.
Close to half the money in the proposal would be put toward repairing buildings on all three campuses.
While not as flashy as new research facilities, repairs are critical to maintaining several key buildings throughout the state, Regent Ernest Calderón said.
The universities have received only a small fraction of the funding they need to repair buildings, some of which are 30 to 40 years old, Calderón said.
But more than fixing up old buildings, the repair money will help the universities be more productive and compete with other universities worldwide, ASU President Michael Crow said.
"It's time to mount up, get on our horses and get in the game," he said.