NMC Eyes Student Housing, More 'Vibrant' Main Campus As Part Of In-Progress Facilities Master Plan
By Craig Manning | Dec. 1, 2023
More dormitories and apartments, development of a long-vacant parcel on Eastern Avenue, and the potential sale of a prime piece of college real estate: These are a few of the changes that could be percolating for Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) as it nears the end of its facilities master planning process.
NMC kicked off that process more than a year ago, hiring the Grand Rapids-based architecture and engineering firm TowerPinkster to lead it through a full inventory and consideration of its buildings, parking lots, vacant land, and other campus assets. Now, NMC is ready to get the public involved – first with an online survey launched last week, then with a pair of community listening sessions scheduled for the coming weeks. It’s all building toward the implementation of the first new NMC campus master plan in over a decade – and according to President Nick Nissley, that plan could mean some big changes in how NMC looks, feels, and functions.
While the facilities master plan is still a work in progress, Nissley says key takeaways have begun “emerging” from conversations with faculty, students, nearby neighborhoods, and other stakeholders.
“What we’re really finding is that we’ve had a shift in terms of student expectations,” Nissley says. “In the post-pandemic, our students are really looking for connections, given that we had those couple of years of connection that were lost. And so, we're trying to figure out how we provide the greatest opportunities for student connections with our campuses.”
Whether because of that desire for connection or simply due to the lack of affordable living arrangements elsewhere in town, demand for student housing has skyrocketed. Per Troy Kierczynski, NMC’s vice president of finance and administration, the college has experienced “a 47 percent decline in enrollment from our peak in 2011,” but is still seeing higher occupancy rates and longer housing waitlists than at any prior point in its history. Between NMC’s two dorm buildings and 36 apartment units, the college has the ability to house 375 students on campus. “We think we can support a least another 100 units, if not 150,” Kierczynski says.
“So, you might see us building a new dorm on campus,” Nissley tells The Ticker. Renovations of existing housing assets, he adds, are also on the table.
The need for more student housing could finally motivate NMC to develop a 55-acre lot that it owns on Eastern Avenue. Purchased by the college in 1969 for $165,000, that land is used sparingly for college storage and maintenance purposes, but has otherwise sat vacant all this time. Last year, Nissley spoke to The Ticker about the possibility of developing the land to serve as a senior living and learning center, touting the concept as a way for NMC to “be more innovative in terms of our revenue streams.” The college put that plan on hold when it launched the campus master planning process.
“We’re probably going to be doing some sort of expansion onto that Eastern Avenue property, and it will probably be housing-related,” Nissley says. “Is it apartments? Is it dorms? Is it the senior living/learning hub you’ve heard about in the past? Or is it something else entirely, like a space for our extended education programming? We're not sure yet, but particularly given the need to grow our housing, that property is very likely to be part of our expansion.”
As NMC’s footprint expands in one direction, it could be contracting elsewhere. Right now, all of NMC’s university partners and several of its key administrative offices – including human resources, finance, extended education, and the NMC Foundation – are based out of the NMC University Center, located off Cass Road. While that spot has become more of a draw in recent years, thanks to the completion of the adjacent Boardman Lake Loop Trail, Nissley says there’s a clear desire to consolidate college services to NMC’s main campus.
“Our University Center partners are definitely wanting to have greater proximity to their future students, and the colleges know that most of our students spend their time on the main campus,” Nissley explains. “For the same reason, we’re probably going to be looking at bringing our own departments back to our main campus, just to have that proximal effectiveness. We think there's value in that, because as we bring more people back to main campus, it’s going to lead to vibrancy. And if you remember, that was one of our key college-wide strategic planning principles: How do we create a vibrant main campus?”
As Nissley acknowledges, relocating everyone from the University Center to main campus would create several “ripple effects” that would need to be accounted for in other sections of the facilities master plan. One of those ripple effects would be the question of what to do with the University Center building, which Nissley says “might be managed as a real estate asset” in the near-future. “We’re going to be asking ourselves questions around that. Is the building rented? Is it leased? Is it sold? How do we optimize that as a real estate asset?”
Another ripple: The question of where to put all those relocated university partners and NMC departments. To make those relocations possible, Kierczynski says the college would likely need to move forward with a long-discussed plan to renovate main campus’s Osterlin Building and convert it into an “integrated student services hub.” NMC has been trying for five years to get funding from the state to execute that project, which would consolidate a variety of student-facing NMC offices – including those for admissions, financial aid, advising, tutoring, counseling, and student life – under one roof. So far, those funding efforts haven’t been successful, but Kierczynski says getting the money for Osterlin revamp is a domino that needs to fall in order to free up space elsewhere on main campus for everything that currently exists at the University Center.
Kierczynski and Nissley both say the new campus master plan should be finalized and ready to implement by “late spring” 2024. First, though, NMC and TowerPinkster will seek feedback from the community at large. Until January 12, anyone who wishes to provide input on the master planning process can do so by way of a recently-launched online survey. The college will also host two public forums on the master plan, with the first coming up later this month (Wednesday, December 13 from 6-7:30pm at the NMC Great Lakes Campus building) and the second planned for early next year (Wednesday, January 24 from 6-7:30pm in room 106/107 of the Thomas J. Nelson Innovation Center).
“These things, the survey and the public forums, are intended to help us better understand how the public uses the campus,” Nissley says. “We really want to use these parts of the process to find out how students, neighbors, businesses, and the community in general are using campus and what they value most about campus, so we can continue doing what's working well for people.”Comment