June 10, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
When Capital Community College students, on their way to classes, stop for coffee in the lobby of the downtown Hartford building that the college shares with a private developer, they pay $1 a cup.
The college pays $26,500 a month.
That is what Capital is charged so that students and faculty can share access to the college through developer Anthony D. Autorino's portion of the high-rise building - an area that includes small retail shops and offices, but also has common entrances, exits and elevators used by the college.
That arrangement, along with fees the college pays the Hartford Parking Authority for parking spaces, is adding nearly $1 million a year to the school's budget - part of the price the school pays for its move downtown five years ago into the remodeled 11-story former G. Fox department store.
The state-of-the-art high-rise college, part of then-Gov. John G. Rowland's "six pillars" of development for downtown Hartford, drew praise for its appealing design and helped attract a robust enrollment, but it came with financial strings attached. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges recently renewed the college's accreditation for another 10 years - but cited problems in an extensive accreditation review.
"The acquisition of the historic downtown site has presented the institution with ongoing challenges in managing its finances and space needs," the association said.
The accreditation report praised Capital, citing, among other things, its academic programs and its efforts to improve graduation rates. But it said the school "struggles to fund its programs due to the high costs associated with the building and its location."
However, officials who oversee the state's entire community college system, made up of a dozen colleges, say Capital's additional costs are taken into account when money is distributed throughout the system. Capital, they say, is not at a competitive disadvantage in relation to the other colleges.
"There is equity in the system when it comes to dollars for academic support," system Chancellor Marc S. Herzog said. "We have 12 colleges that need more money, but we have 11 that cost less to operate. ... The reason for that is downtown campuses are expensive."
Too expensive, some Capital officials say.
"This simply isn't fair to students," said Robert B. Hickey, chairman of the Capital Community College Foundation and Advisory Council. "A million dollars a year, and it's not really directly helping the mission of the college."
The parking and building costs are part of agreements negotiated as Capital moved from its former Woodland Street location to the downtown site.
In 2000, Autorino and the state jointly purchased the giant G. Fox building from the city, with Autorino and his partnership paying about $2.5 million for 60 percent of the building and the state paying about $1.7 million for the remaining 40 percent for use by the college.
The agreement between Autorino and the state Department of Public Works requires the state to pay 40 percent of the cost of upkeep for the common area, nearly all of which is located in Autorino's portion of the building. Such arrangements are common in hotels, malls and office buildings where different tenants make use of a common area, according to commercial real estate experts.
Capital officials, however, contend the arrangement is one-sided. The college receives no similar support for its part of the building even though customers for the retail shops sometimes enter through the college doors on Main Street.
"To me, it should go both ways," said Lester Primus, Capital's dean of administration. "The way we use [their] space is the same way they use our space, but we don't get anything."
The fee, based on the cost of upkeep for the area, is expected to go up another 13 percent in July, according to college officials.
Autorino referred questions on the matter to Deborah Waterhouse, building manager for his development company. Waterhouse said, "We do not intend to talk about private financial matters."
Officials at Capital say they are locked into the building agreement with Autorino, but are hoping for some relief on parking costs under a separate agreement with the Hartford Parking Authority.
The college will pay the city about $355,000 this year for an allotment of spaces in the nearby Morgan Street garage, allowing free parking for regular students and faculty.
However, even when that allotment is not filled, the college is charged additional fees at standard parking rates for non-credit students and other campus visitors, boosting the annual cost by an additional $220,000, college officials estimate.
"Even if the [allotted] space is empty ... we pay," Primus said. "Those are the costs that add up."
Herzog called the additional fees an unfair burden. He said the college is involved in talks with the parking authority in an effort to clarify the interpretation of the parking contract.
James Kopencey, the parking authority's executive director, said the agency was "in full compliance" with the contract. "I'm sure they'd like to reduce their expenses to the fullest degree possible. Frankly, I don't think the right forum is in the press," he said.
Although the move downtown in 2002 resulted in higher costs, it proved to be popular among students - so popular that a surge in enrollment soon began straining the building's capacity.
Capital now has more than 7,000 credit and non-credit students.
The college hopes to ease the crowding by leasing two upper floors on Autorino's side of the building. The floors were to have been used by the state banking department, but have remained vacant for several years. Capital is awaiting final approval of a lease and state bond funding to convert the floors to classrooms.
Space has been so tight that the college has put classes in an auditorium, a community room and conference rooms. Students are accustomed to long delays at the elevators. A bookstore operates in what was to have been a fitness center, storing some of its merchandise in an area designed for showers.
Despite the problems, Calvin E. Woodland, Capital's president, says running a campus in the heart of downtown Hartford is a good idea.
"Given that Hartford is a major player in terms of corporate business activity," he said, "there's an advantage for the college to be here." He added, "It's really a blessing in terms of providing access, particularly for low-income students and members of the minority community, and also it's a beautiful edifice."
But Woodland, who came to Capital two years ago, said he wishes planners had given more thought to issues such as parking, building expenses and crowding.
"Now," he said, "there is a high cost to be paid."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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