Below the radar: Athabasca University and St. Albert quietly discuss partnership to develop joint office space near Edmonton

Posted on January 25, 2016, 12:24 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: St. Albert City Hall on a nice warm summer night, as seen from the possible location of a joint office building that’s been discussed by the city and Athabasca University. Below: The sign welcoming visitors to Athabasca University in the Town of Athabasca and the sign at the entrance to the city of St. Albert.

St. Albert, Alberta

Despite consternation in December 2014 when Athabasca University announced it was closing offices in the City of St. Albert, the Edmonton-area suburban municipality and the troubled public post-secondary institution were soon quietly negotiating a plan to build and share a new office building on city-owned land.

“Active discussions” between St. Albert and Athabasca U were under way by the fall of 2015 and have continued quietly since, with St. Albert City Council giving the nod to a non-binding expression of interest arrangement with AU in September 2015, according to university and city documents obtained by AlbertaPolitics.ca.

auc-signSuch a plan would likely rouse controversy at the distance-education university based in the town of Athabasca, in the City of St. Albert and within the provincial government.

AU is experiencing an existential financial crisis. A grimly worded report, requested in 2014 by interim AU President Peter MacKinnon, claimed that “based on our most reliable assumptions, we project the likelihood of insolvency in 2016/2017.” This conclusion has been strongly disputed in the AU community and the town.

Senior AU administrators have also floated the idea the university ought to leave the town of Athabasca. This is not likely to be supported by the NDP provincial government elected on May 5, 2015, since it would cause both an economic crisis for the community and serious political problems for the government.

As previously reported, this situation appears to have placed the NDP Government in conflict with the university’s administration and board, members of which were all appointed by a previous Progressive Conservative government. Advanced Education Minister Lori Sigurdson has sent two letters to the board giving it specific instructions on future planning for the university.

SONY DSCBack in St. Albert, the location that seems to be the favoured site for the proposed city-AU building is on a parking lot near City Hall, within St. Albert’s controversial Downtown Area Redevelopment Plan area. This site was at the centre of a similar controversy in February 2015, when a local newspaper reported a plan for an office building there to be built by the local Chamber of Commerce with space for the city. That idea called for the land to be donated to the chamber for a nominal payment.

Meanwhile, the plan for an expression-of-interest agreement signed by St. Albert and AU was moving ahead, according to a 2015 report prepared for the university’s Board. The idea was to create economies of scale “to attract serious, experienced and credible developers” for a 90,000-square-foot building on one of three city-owned parcels of land, that report said.

A Sept. 30, 2015, report by the city administration to St. Albert city councillors stated that “the City has entered into a strategic partnership arrangement with Athabasca University” to accommodate the anticipated office space needs of both, with 40,000 square feet for the city and 30,000 for the university by 2020.

In addition to anticipating the city’s need for 40,000 square feet of office space by 2020, the city report said, “it is also anticipating requiring an additional 10,000 square feet every five years starting in 2025.”

“To address both the City of St. Albert’s long-term civic office space requirements and those of Athabasca University, the intent of this process is to secure approximately 90,000 square feet of leased office space for occupancy by the spring of 2020, and additionally to have the option to secure an additional 10,000 square feet every five years for the next 20 years to accommodate new staff space needs for the partners collectively.”

The city report names the downtown site plus one in each of two planned city industrial parks, South Riel Park and the Employment Lands west of the city and north of Big Lake.

The building, says the city report, should be “a showpiece for the surrounding community and a location for multi-sector collaboration” and “embody a strong relationship to the public realm through the use of ground-level open gathering places, both inside the building and on the surrounding site.”

The city report also noted that “for the past decade AU has been seeking a more permanent solution for its presence in the Greater Edmonton Area … into one easily accessible location…”

“Work is underway to seek additional third public, or non-for profit partners, (sic) who have similar space requirements,” the city report notes. “Each entity requires contiguous space,” it also says.

There have been a few hints such an effort was afoot. When AU announced the plan to move its business faculty into an Edmonton commercial building just south of St. Albert in December 2014, the city’s economic development director told the local newspaper, “we don’t see them as gone forever.”

And AU’s 2014-2017 Comprehensive Institutional Plan, published in March 2014, noted in passing that “for the past two years, the university has been exploring options for an AU-owned facility, in St. Albert or elsewhere in the Greater Edmonton Area.”

There are historical and other links between AU and St. Albert. For example, the city was briefly considered as the site for the university before it was founded in 1970, and Margaret Mrazek, the interim chair of the AU board, is a director of the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce.

NOTE: This story has been edited to more accurately reflect the time element of the start of negotiations between the city and AU as shown by the documents. This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

8 Comments to: Below the radar: Athabasca University and St. Albert quietly discuss partnership to develop joint office space near Edmonton

  1. January 25th, 2016

    So at the January AU Board meeting, the public discussion about hiring a new president included comments that the new president would be based out of the Edmonton area. I wonder how that fits in with this announcement and the administration’s recurring assertion that “AU will remain in Athabasca”?

    Reply
    • Joe Q. Peon

      January 25th, 2016

      How would that work? The “Office of the President” is in the main building in Athabasca, AU house is Athabasca. Would AU be paying for a house in Edmonton/St. Albert? Would AU be paying for commutes? If they want the job they move here, it’s not like they need to find a place to live.

      Reply
  2. Athabascan

    January 25th, 2016

    The government needs to appoint an investigator to examine the financial and administrative condition of the board and other matters connected with its operation. And, the government also needs to fire the board and replace it with a single administrator.

    Many of us voted NDP in the hope they would help fix the chronic problems at AU that are caused by the board of governors and the incompetent executives. Please help us.

    Reply
  3. Don

    January 27th, 2016

    AU operates an outdated business model. 25 years ago they were at the cutting edge of distance education, today every college and university has a online classes. Today the Athabasca university competes with many large brand name competitors such as the university of Alberta that are online. If the NDP were smart they would cut Athabasca U and move into the modern world of the internet. What on earth St.Albert would be doing attempting to partner with a financial vulnerable institution is beyond me, although I suppose it would have to be a more money than brains situation.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      January 27th, 2016

      Don, that’s the most idiotic thing I have heard yet. Are you sure you aren’t a member of the Board of Governors at AU? If you aren’t you might think about joining them, or the executives who work there.

      “…cut Athabasca U and move into the modern world of the internet.” AU operates on the internet, and so do our 40,000+ students, in case you didn’t know.

      Yeah, close AU and put 3,500+ people out of work, because of the greed and incompetence of 10-12 people who run the place. That makes a lot of sense, as if there aren’t enough Albertans out of work already. Like I said idiotic.

      Reply
  4. Liam Connelly

    January 27th, 2016

    Don – AU does work primarily on the internet. Many of us work on our computers daily answering questions and marking assignments that students up-load to the online course sites. Technology is our infrastructure and that needs provincial support. AU is a online institution, but you forget the other part of our mission. We are an Open University, giving people who would otherwise not get a post secondary degree, a chance to advance themselves. We are a national Open University, maybe the provincial and the federal governments governments should get their collective heads to gather to find creative solution.

    Reply
  5. Chris

    January 28th, 2016

    Maybe we could get Darryl Katz to rent them some space one of his new buildings. We’re paying for most of them anyway.

    Reply

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