Sep 23, 2018
Story and photo courtesy of the Idaho State Journal
To house its highly touted premier research facility, Idaho State University bought the former Ballard Medical Building on Pocatello’s east side in 2011 for $3.6 million.
At the time, it was heralded as a steal of a deal as ISU invested nearly $1.7 million to see the Research and Innovation in Science and Engineering, or RISE, Complex come to fruition.
Seven years later, ISU now calls the the building the Eames Advanced Technical Education and Innovations Complex, and the school has plans to pump approximately $21 million into the facility over the next six years to house most of its College of Technology programs.
The Idaho State Board of Education recently unanimously approved an ISU request to reallocate $10 million awarded from the state Permanent Building Fund and slated for a planned renovation of the Gale Life Sciences building to use instead on the massive endeavor.
Nonetheless, current ISU President Kevin Satterlee stands behind the purchase.
When asked how he would respond to critics who say relocating the College of Technology Programs to the Eames Complex is an attempt to salvage the aspirations of the failed RISE Complex, Satterlee said, “The real honest answer is that that criticism isn’t looking at the facts of the case.”
“When you look at where Eames is located, what it’s potential is as a high-bay, big-box construction it lends itself to College of Technology functions,” he added.
“It’s literally as if it was built for that, because in a way it probably was originally.”
Erected on Alvin Ricken Drive in 1996, the 220,000-square-foot Ballard Medical building employed hundreds of people who manufactured various medical supplies ranging from hospital beds to catheters. The Austin, Texas-based Kimberly-Clark Co. acquired Ballard Medical Products for approximately $788 million in 1999. The Pocatello facility expanded in 2000.
Then in 2005, Kimberly-Clark Health Care announced it would phase out operations at its plants in Pocatello and Draper, Utah, consolidating operations at a facility in Mexico.
The building sat vacant for several years until Grace Lutheran Church and School approached the Pocatello City Council in 2010, seeking a special zoning exception to expand in the facility.
The request was denied, and ISU purchased the building for approximately $100,000 more than what Grace Lutheran was offering less than a year later.
Over the next five years, the RISE Complex would attract tens of millions in research grants from various entities, including the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Defense. The complex also drew criticism for having one of the largest and most vacant parking lots on campus. Research at the facility focused on particle accelerator applications, the production of portable nuclear energy sources and nanocrystal wavelength shifting.
But the future of the RISE Complex came into question in August 2016, when ISU laid off 34 of the facility’s workers, leaving only 12 full-time employees in addition to the ISU students and graduate assistants who worked there. The facility’s executive director abruptly resigned a month later, accompanied with an announcement from ISU that the function of the complex was under reevaluation.
In June 2017, ISU renamed the RISE Complex to the Eames Complex and announced it would soon house most of the school’s College of Technology programs.
About one month after renaming the facility, ISU announced the findings of an internal forensic audit during a press conference, with top-level university officials saying the audit revealed “violations of Idaho state law and university policies and procedures regarding the use of public funds and conflicts of interest.” The Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office said it learned of the alleged violations of state law from the press conference, a process the head prosecutor called “unusual.”
But by the end of 2017, ISU submitted information to the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office that alleged one of the RISE Complex business officers embezzled over $10,000 from the school.
More than a year since that press conference, ISU has unveiled its $21 million master plan for the College of Technology relocation and completed the transition of some of those units. With many of those technical career positions in high demand, President Satterlee says re-purposing the facility makes the most financial sense for the school right now.
“We have 220,000-square-feet of facility up there at the Eames Complex — that’s quite the asset,” Satterlee said. “And the entire College of Technology is full of high-demand programs right now. We have this asset and we need to put it to strategic use to better the university.”
The Eames Complex master plan involves three phases, with each phase costing the university approximately $13 million, $5 million and $3 million, respectively, according to ISU College of Technology Dean Scott Rasmussen.
To date, the Eames Complex houses the computerized machining technology and computer-aided design drafting technology programs, as well as the industry welcome center and marketing and administrative offices. Moving those initial programs cost approximately $600,000, Rasmussen said.
If the Idaho Legislature green-lights the State Board’s approval of ISU’s request in January, the $10 million reallocation will fund more than 75 percent of the first phase, which will move the welding, automotive technology and auto collision and repair programs into the Eames Complex.
Of those, the welding program is a unit Satterlee specifically said will greatly benefit from a new home.
“Welders are in extremely high demand,” Satterlee said. “Right now we have 24 bays where we instruct in the welding program. When we remodel the Eames Complex we will expand welding from 24 to 48 bays. And the state has already given us the money to hire the instructors to double our welding instruction, but we have nowhere for the students to work and learn. The demand is there, we just have to have the facilities.”
The success of ISU students graduating from the welding program can be extrapolated throughout almost all other College of Technology programs, Satterlee added.
“If you look at the placement rates of our students who graduate from those programs most of them are in the 100 percent placement range,” Satterlee said. “Those that are not 100 percent are in the high 90s. These are programs that are training people right now for good paying jobs out in the workforce with high-level salaries.”
Rasmussen said phase two will fund the diesel technology transition, and the third phase will involve constructing a separate building attached to Eames Complex that will house on-site power generation.
“Diesel and on-site power have become huge industries in recent years and have created a burgeoning demand for those jobs,” Rasmussen said. “You have to go through the diesel program to get to on-site power, so having them co-located allows us to share tools and expertise between units. Plus, the new facility would allow us to potentially double the capacity of our on-site power program.”
ISU would like to complete the first phase in time for the spring 2020 semester, Rasmussen said. By way of a capital investment campaign, ISU has currently raised approximately $3 million of its own money to assist in the College of Technology transition, Rasmussen added.
“On top of the capital investment campaign, business and industry have been a tremendous support in the donation of equipment at a greatly reduced cost to create a state-of-the-art program,” Rasmussen said.
While Satterlee said the Gale Life Science renovation remains one of ISU’s top priorities, revamping the Eames Complex now opens the door for other projects around the Pocatello campus, too.
“I’ve heard complaints from people about parking demand and issues on campus,” Satterlee said. “When we move all of the faculty, students and staff up to the Eames Complex we will relieve some of those infrastructure pressures, which will allow us to have a better master plan of dealing with those types of concerns.”
The move will also create synergistic opportunities with programs outside of the College of Technology.
“A number of our current programs are in substandard facilities,” Rasmussen said. “Not only will College of Technology programs be moving into a state-of the-art facility, the buildings that will be vacated when we do move up here will create some space to co-locate a number of our health occupation programs.”
Satterlee said when those programs move to the Eames Complex, ISU will be able to consolidate its College of Technology nursing program with its College of Health Sciences program, and teach them in a single location.
”That’s one of the biggest benefits,” Satterlee said.
Former ISU President Arthur Vailas asked the Legislature in January 2017 to approve $10 million from its Permanent Building Fund to complete a proposed $12 million Gale Life Sciences Building renovation project. ISU planned to put $2 million of its own money toward the endeavor.
State budget writers unanimously approved the request in March 2017.
While the The Gale Life Sciences Building has been subject to deferred maintenance in recent years — including a $1.1 million upgrade to enhance the building’s anatomy and physiology laboratory — Satterlee fully supports re-purposing the school’s once highly touted premier research facility. It’s time that asset gets put to good use, he says.
When asked if ISU’s decision to purchase the former Ballard Building in 2011 was a good investment, Satterlee said, “We have an asset of 220,000-square-feet of space that we have to put to strategic use.”
Satterlee added, “We couldn’t have the resources to build that square footage on our campus right now, but we have it, and my job as president of the university and steward of the future is to say, ‘How are we going to use that asset to our strategic advantage.’”