MISSOULA — An open house hosted by the University of Montana turned raucous Wednesday night when opponents of the school’s plans for the South Campus picketed the meeting and jeered officials for suggesting that education was more important than golf.
At the evening meeting, the university again shared its South Campus plans with the public, demonstrating how UM planned to grow over the next century on land it owns in the southeast corner of Missoula, roughly one-half mile from the main campus.
The first academic facility planned for the area, the current site of the UM Golf Course, would be a new three-story facility for Missoula College. The new structure would accommodate a larger student body in a setting more conducive to education and be located near the main campus to facilitate transfer between classes.
While no one spoke against the need for a new Missoula College, opponents focused instead on where to place the building. The well-organized opposition maintained that the college should be erected several miles across the city at Fort Missoula.
“If there was no other alternatives, then fine, they should put it here,” said Tana Combs. “But they do have alternatives on where to build it. I’m tired of seeing our open spaced choked off. We can’t have a concrete Missoula.”
Opponents to building Missoula College at the South Campus picketed the meeting, holding signs critical of the state’s plans to sacrifice the golf course for the sake of the college.
Protesters heckled and booed UM President Royce Engstrom when he addressed the crowd and suggested that education was more important than golf.
“The fact is, when it comes down to it, we have to prioritize the education of the next generation of students over golf,” Engstrom said, receiving a round of jeers from the crowd. “I’ll be happy to talk with you on any level of detail you’d like. We’ll develop this campus with as much potential green space as possible.”
Barbara Starmer, who opposes construction of Missoula College on the South Campus, said that as a taxpayer, she believes it would be more cost efficient to build the college elsewhere.
Like many opponents who are fearful of losing the golf course, she suggested building the college across the city at Fort Missoula, or revamping the existing college on South Avenue West.
“We as taxpayers have paid for studies and the studies have said it would be better to put the college on the West Campus, or put a second or third level and revamp the building you’ve got,” said Starmer.
“We want the college, we just don’t want it on the golf course,” she added. “It causes more congestion than what you’ve already got, and most of these students aren’t taking half their classes here and half their classes there.”
Students made a strong appearance at the meeting as well, and many suggested that they do, in fact, take classes at separate locations. They said it’s difficult to get across Missoula during the daytime, given the distance and the traffic.
They also said that many of the services they rely upon, including the Curry Health Center and the Associated Students of the University of Montana, are located at UM’s main campus.
“If you have a car, great, but having a car shouldn’t be a requirement to go to college,” said Eamon Ormseth, a member of the ASUM student senate and supporter of the South Campus plans. “No one wants to destroy the golf course, but this is a student issue as well. This is hardly even about moving forward into the future, it’s more about the past. This should have been done decades ago.”
Jay Moore, president of the Pi Theta Kappa honor society, agreed.
“A lot of the things we pay for, we get access to here,” said Moore. “Being over there (at Fort Missoula) makes it difficult. In the time you have, it’s more difficult to get over (to the main campus).”
The meeting was held in the UM Golf Course Clubhouse, not far from where the new Missoula College would be located – followed in time by a new UM research center and an indoor practice facility, among other venues.
While some opponents of the plan lambasted the meeting’s format, suggesting it offered no opportunity to address the crowd, others were pleased with the turnout and welcomed the input of those willing to offer it, which many did.
John Cech, deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education with the Montana University System, reiterated the importance of winning funding from the Legislature to get the college built.
He said the South Campus was a suitable location to place Missoula College and to see UM grow over the next 100 years.
“I think location is a very important factor,” he said. “There are some benefits of having it in this location. It allows students to easily share classes at the university and to see the next step in completing their baccalaureate.”
Before opponents booed Engstrom for suggesting that education trumps golf, he spoke to the importance of building the college and winning $47 million in funding from the Legislature to complete the project.
Engstrom said he was sensitive to the debate on where to place the college, but said that the university had a responsibility to grow in a smart and proper way that best benefits the students.
“We’re building for the next 50 to 100 years for UM,” he told the room. “If you look at what the first 100 years of this institution has done, it’s completely filled the location that we’re at now. There’s no reason not believe that the next 50 to 100 years will be any different.
We have to build for the future in a well-thought out and well-planned way,” he continued. “We can’t go putting a building in one location and another building in some other location. We have to do this in a concerted, deliberate way that maximizes the effectiveness of the education program for our students and does that in the most economic way.”