University looks to grow in Arden Hills, eye on former Smiths Medical


The University of Northwestern, located in Arden Hills, is considering a future expansion. One site the Christian college has its eye on is the vacated Smiths Medical facility, also located in Arden Hills. Northwestern’s president Alan Cureton would like to see students walking toward Smiths’ doors, however, the Arden Hills City Council is not so sure about rezoning the site to accommodate the college.

Smiths Medical in Arden Hills is a vacant 165,000 square-foot facility. While the University of Northwestern would like to buy and use the facility, city officials are hesitant

One of the two universities located in Arden Hills is looking at a possible expansion in the near future and hoping to keep that growth within the same suburb, having its sights set on the former Smiths Medical facility. 

According to Alan Cureton, president of the University of Northwestern, which has called Arden Hills home since 1972, the school of over 3,000 students has seen an increase in students wanting to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, subjects together known as STEM.

“One of the growth areas for us in recent years has been students interested in [these subjects],” Cureton said in an interview Sept. 22. 

“As a result, we have been interested in the possibility of expansion. We’re trying to find a facility or build a facility that would meet our needs.”

 

Responding to student interest

Another reason Northwestern is considering the expansion is a need to move its engineering degree in-house.

According to Cureton, Northwestern, along with 31 other small colleges, had a long-standing relationship with the University of Minnesota, partnering with the large public institution’s engineering program. 

“It was a wonderful program,” Cureton said. “But for budgetary reasons, the University of Minnesota had to drop it.”

This concern, along with having to cap enrollment in certain areas of study, such as nursing, due to the high volume of interested students, means Northwestern will have to expand so that students aiming at a STEM-specific degree will not have to look elsewhere. 

“It’s been an interesting shift in what students coming out of high school are interested in,” Cureton said.

Due to this shift, the school has begun to look at nearby facilities. Cureton noted that because “it’s a small world and a small community,” the Christian school’s leaders heard through the grapevine that there were facilities of former medical devise companies that were available with laboratories that were state of the art, as required by the FDA.

“We thought ‘these are sitting empty; they’re for sale, and close to our campus — let’s inquire.’”

 

Discussion with city officials

At the Sept. 19 Arden Hills City Council work session Cureton brought the subject forth to council members. He said unlike how it was reported by other news outlets, the University of Northwestern representatives did not make a formal proposal to the city, but instead sought the opinions and insight from the council. 

“They came to us for discussion on the matter,” Arden Hills Mayor David Grant said Sept. 22. “It was a casual chat, that’s really all it was. Was there anything formal contemplated? No. Could there be in the future? I’m not sure what they’re going to do.”

According to Cureton, Northwestern has already entered into a letter of agreement with Smiths Medical, which still owns the facility at 1265 Grey Fox Road. 

“We’ve agreed on a price,” Cureton said, not revealing the dollar amount, as the entire transaction is dependent upon the next challenge: rezoning the land. 

At this point, according to the mayor, the school would not be allowed to use the facility for its purposes. 

“The zoning does not permit an educational use there,” Grant said, and noted, in regards to rezoning, “I would characterize this as: ‘no interest on behalf of the city.’”

If an educational institution moves into the Smiths Medical facility, the complex would be exempt from paying property taxes.

 

Looking at options 

Based on comments made by council members at the work session, it appears they would rather wait for another company to move into the vacant building, one that would offer more immediate jobs and more tax dollars funneling into the city’s coffers, though Cureton said, as far as taxes go, it could be negotiated, while the facility itself might offer up some 43 faculty and support staff jobs.

“We looked up the street from us and there were two options,” Cureton said, noting both Boston Scientific, which he said is down-sizing and looking at a possible future move, and the already-vacant 165,000 square-foot Smiths facility.

He said Smiths Medical, which would have to be remodeled, is both closer to the Northwestern campus, and “much more affordable” and “more manageable.”

“We do understand the city wants to develop a consistent industrial manufacturing base in Arden Hills, but in order to do so,” Cureton said, “we also need to think of the future — that 10 to 15 years down the road, there’s going to be a massive tsunami of baby boomers retiring and there’s not enough Generation X-ers, Y-ers and millennials to fill the positions.”

He said he hopes Northwestern students can help fill in the holes in science and engineering fields.

“We went to the city to say ‘let’s partner together... let’s collaborate and create talent, attract talent and retain talent,’” Cureton said. “In our belief, we can’t just rely on people moving in; we’ve got to grow and keep the talent.”

Cureton said the college will continue to look at its options and work with the city. 

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at @JPooleNews.

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