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Gene Awakuni

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    Gene Awakuni, the chancellor of UH-West Oahu, hopes that the first classes at a new campus can begin in the fall of 2012.
    An artist’s rendering shows one of the views for the new campus at UH-West Oahu.

Gene Awakuni has put in five years as chancellor of the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. That’s long enough for Awakuni, a 25-year veteran of campus-building in the University of California system and at Stanford and Columbia universities, to hear a lot of naysaying about the four-year baccalaureate campus ever moving to its own Kapolei property.

That talk’s been going on for so long — since the institution was founded as West Oahu College in 1976, with most of its classes held in temporary buildings on the Leeward Community College campus — that it’s been hard to believe the long wait for a permanent home will end.

But last week Gov. Linda Lingle released $48 million in funds to build the new campus on university-owned land. That money will kickstart construction and meet a critical deadline set by the Campbell Co., formerly known as the Campbell Estate, which is donating 200 of the university’s 500 acres.

Permits are in place for construction to start about a month from now, with the first classes on the new campus set for fall 2012, Awakuni said. A 20-acre parcel of land will be sold to help pay the interest on the next construction stage, which Awakuni plans to fund through the issuance of a $60 million revenue bond.

The university will seek a new developer for a planned community on its land, replacing a deal with Hunt Construction Co. that fell through in the economic downturn.

Financial planning for the campus also involves various public-private partnerships to underwrite some scholarships and faculty hires, as well as tuition from an enrollment projected to grow at 15 percent a year. Awakuni has spreadsheets showing an operation with a surplus and a student body of about 4,600 by the 2019 academic year — all without taking any more general funds than its current yearly allotment of $6.1 million.

He points to the ultimate goal: an enrollment of 7,600 at a university that can offer hope of well-paid careers to students, especially on Oahu’s west side.

And they would join the work force the state needs in key fields, such as education, health care, digital media and other technical professions.

Long before then, Awakuni and other champions of UH-West Oahu hope, the naysaying will stop at last.

Question: How specifically is the $48 million released by the governor going to be spent?

Answer: $31 million will be used to develop three buildings, which includes a two-story, 41,000 square-foot classroom/faculty office building. Another two-story, 41,000 square-foot laboratory building will include all the general science labs. The third is a maintenance and mechanical building. The remaining $16-17 million will be used to grade the 10.5 acres, for roadways, driveways, water, sewer, power and landscaping.

Q: Will that enable you to move out of this facility altogether?

A: That will allow us to move out at the new site, to the point where we can accommodate up to 2,700 students. That will allow us the classroom space we need. We need other buildings to house our staff and administration that would include a library, a campus center and administration building … That would require $60 million. We are looking at the possibility of raising that money through a revenue bond issue. We would pay debt service on that revenue bond by selling a small portion of our land, roughly 20 acres. That would allow us a few years to be able to cover the debt service on the $60 million bond.

Q: Wasn’t the reason the $48 million was so essential was that Campbell had a deadline?

A: Campbell had a deadline of our needing to start construction by Dec. 31, 2011. It wasn’t just moving earth; it was toward the completion of facilities that could accommodate 2,700 students; there was specific wording. We actually had to do it to demonstrate to Campbell Co. that we were going to establish a university in Kapolei. The penalty for not meeting that deadline was that 200 acres donated to the university would have to be given back to Campbell Co. That 200 acres would come from our 500 acres of land. That would have been devastating for us. That would have basically killed the project forever.

Q: Does Campbell agree that the three-building portion of the first phase represents enough of a commitment?

A: We have a revised set of covenants that we’ve been working with the Campbell people on for the last year and a half, but there’s a new CEO, so we have to get the new CEO on board to accept and approve it on behalf of the Campbell Co. Everyone, the lawyers, senior staff within Campbell, have all agreed that this new language works. And ultimately they want to see us down in Kapolei. We’ll be the catalyst for economic development, stimulate the residential market as well.

There are a lot of benefits of having a university in Kapolei … every promotional brochure we’ve seen about Kapolei, UH-West Oahu is mentioned — prominently. They do it for obvious reasons. Who wouldn’t want to live in a city with a university in it? It creates a whole different cultural milieu.

Q: What will West Oahu’s role be in filling Hawaii’s workforce gaps?

A: Our mission is to provide highly skilled, highly trained professionals in those critical-need areas that the state requires in the next decade and beyond. So, for example, we’re looking at health care, allied health fields, respiratory care, long-term care, occupational therapy, possibly nursing … We also started our teacher education program because there is still that continuing gap between the number of teachers that the state needs … and the number of teachers they can recruit.

Our internal process for approval of a new program is much shorter than most major public universities because we’re smaller, we don’t have the necessary hurdles. I don’t like to compare us to (UH-)Manoa; I just want to say we’re more nimble, we’re more entrepreneurial, we’re able to seize opportunities as they arise.


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