NEW FRANKLIN — On a grassy ridge, with an apple orchard and a row of 20 pine trees as a backdrop, Gov. Matt Blunt’s vision for higher education will come to fruition.
This is the future site of MU’s Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center, a big name for what amounts to a $2.5 million multipurpose building with office and lab space, computers, a kitchenette, showers and enough room for 300 people on portable chairs.
It’s not actually what Blunt envisioned almost 18 months ago when he proposed to sell the state’s student loan authority to finance a $425 million plan, featuring life sciences and biotechnology projects representing “the next great wave of economic and scientific revolution.”
Rather, it’s what Blunt got after partisan politics and speculation about human embryonic stem cell research led lawmakers to drop the most prominent life sciences projects from the list.
Cut was the cornerstone project, a $150 million Health Sciences Research Center at MU that would have gotten a majority of its money from the sale of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. Also cut were five other life sciences and technology projects at MU, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and UM-St. Louis.
They were replaced, in part, by nearly a dozen agricultural projects, many of which include new meeting rooms at MU farms. Proponents insist the projects still are important.
“What we’re doing out here is life sciences, basically, in a way,” said Ray Glendening, the farm manager at the agroforestry center near the Missouri River town of New Franklin. “If you’re trying to improve nut production and food in general, you’re improving the quality of life.”
The agroforestry center focuses on ways to get the most value out of land — for example, by planting nut or pine trees in rows with pasture in between. Cattle can graze on the pasture, which also can be harvested for hay, while maturing trees produce nuts or pine needles for mulch. Eventually, the trees can be cut down for their wood.
The farm, which attracted 4,500 people to its chestnut roast last year, hosts about 30 smaller meetings and events a year for the likes of school children, gardening clubs and agricultural groups. Sometimes visitors have to meet under tents, because the current conference room holds only 25 people.
Thanks to the infusion of student loan agency money, new or improved meeting rooms also are in the works at university farms near Albany, Cook Station, Corning, Mount Vernon, Novelty and Spickard.
The agricultural conference centers are similar to the “Learning Discovery Center” built in 2002 at a university farm in Albany. The 200-person facility has hosted the 4-H Club, government meetings, Ducks Unlimited, the Albany High School prom and even wedding receptions.
Some consider the rural conference centers a far cry from the medical research buildings and the “business incubators” designed to propel life sciences research into commercial products under Blunt’s original plan.
“I think it’s a stretch to say hosting wedding receptions is leading in the life sciences,” said Democratic Sen. Chuck Graham, of Columbia, one of the more outspoken critics of Blunt’s revamped plan. And “developing better nuts is great, but I’m more interested in finding a cure for cancer.”
When foes of embryonic stem cell research opposed the life sciences projects, Blunt’s supporters searched for a way to reconfigure the package to keep it from collapsing. Asked if they had any needs, the university’s agriculture officials quickly compiled a roughly $50 million wish list. State officials picked about $14 million of those projects, not necessarily according to the priorities the university would have followed.
The agricultural facilities cured the concerns of some lawmakers, with the added political benefit of constructing buildings in a greater number of legislative districts.
The plan Blunt outlined in January 2006 included just two university farm projects — new greenhouses at a Bootheel farm and a new Plant Science Research Center near Mexico, Mo. The final version expanded the Mexico project and added nine other MU farm initiatives.
The plan includes a wide range of major building projects across Missouri’s colleges and universities. With the health science center gone, the largest project remaining is a $30.1 million science and math building at Missouri Western State University. Among the other projects getting more than originally planned are the $28.5 million renovation of the science building complex atUM-St. Louis and a $24.4 million Center for Plant Biologics and Northwest Missouri State University.
As redrafted in March, Blunt’s plan also included a new cancer hospital at MU and completion of a pharmacy and nursing building atUM-KC — both among the replacements for the stricken research buildings. But those two projects also were axed by Republican senators, as political retribution against Graham and Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, for their continued vocal opposition to Blunt’s plan.
The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center projected Blunt’s original plan would have resulted in $554 million annually in new economic activity and spurred the creation of 4,880 jobs annually paying an average of $45,314. The plan that passed will have a smaller economic impact, but the state isn’t making specific projections, said Spence Jackson, a spokesman for the Department of Economic Development.
In addition to the university buildings, Blunt’s original plan would have used $100 million in student loan agency money for scholarships and $20 million for endowed professorships. The final version spends no loan agency money for those purposes, although the state budget includes a significant general revenue increase for scholarships. The bill Blunt signed also places limits on university tuition increases.
Blunt, who signed the bill in May, still considers it a “historic higher education plan for Missouri students and families.”
Graham says Blunt’s original vision has been blurred.
“They’re just building buildings to build them,” Graham said. “There’s no focus on research. There’s not the original vision that was going to make us a leader in the life sciences.”