By 2009, leaders at The College of New Jersey had developed a vision: New housing and retail shops to enhance their Ewing campus. A walkable place for local residents to interact with students and staff. Employment opportunities, enhanced amenities and new offerings for visitors and returning alumni.
It was just a matter of finding the funds for the sweeping redevelopment plan known as Campus Town — funds they didn’t quite have at the time.
But it wasn’t long before TCNJ was given a solution. That year, state lawmakers in Trenton passed the Economic Stimulus Act, allowing colleges to partner with private developers to build new residence halls on campus.
“The timing of this was perfect for us,” said Curt Heuring, TCNJ’s vice president for administration. “And this legislation was a catalyst for allowing us to go ahead with this project that we had been thinking about, but couldn’t figure out a way to do until this legislation happened.”
Campus Town is now under construction and on its way to becoming a reality after TCNJ and its development partner, West Long Branch-based PRC Group, broke ground last fall on the $85 million, nine-building project. And the law has allowed some of New Jersey’s other colleges and universities to enhance their campuses without taking a financial hit.
Montclair State University completed the state’s first public-private partnership under the law in 2011 when it opened the Heights, a project that added 2,000 beds to its campus in two luxury high-rises.
The $211 million project was developed with Provident Resources Group Inc., a Baton Rouge, La.-based nonprofit that financed the project through tax-exempt bonds, owns the towers and leases the site from Montclair.
Such partnerships could become increasingly important as colleges work to stay competitive in the eyes of students. Kenneth Gruskin, a Springfield-based architect, said the days of offering dorms that look like “cell blocks” are gone; they have been replaced by residence halls with suites and features in the mold of apartments.
“It’s more like luxury housing, with all these amenities you could imagine,” said Gruskin, principal of Gruskin Group. “I recently saw one with a gym that would put a New York Sports Club to shame.”
That’s not lost on administrators at Saint Peter’s University, which is partnering with Towson, Md.-based Sora Development on a $220 million residential tower in Jersey City. Officials expect a key selling point for students to be some 80,000 square feet of retail at the base of the tower, which could include a bank, a grocery store and several types of eateries.
“Students nowadays — and their parents — are expecting amenities,” said Michael Fazio, Saint Peter’s vice president for advancement and external affairs. “And if they’re going to invest four years and a lot of money into an institution, they’re expecting that the amenities are going to keep pace.”
What’s more, experts say public-private partnerships can create new revenue streams for colleges. Heuring said TCNJ was mainly looking at Campus Town “as a way to provide housing and amenities,” but a competitive bidding process resulted in a deal that will bring the college almost $50 million in found money over the next 50 years.
That’s the term of the ground lease between TCNJ and PRC Group for the 12-acre, college-owned land that will house the new complex. Heuring said the payments start at around $400,000 and increase every year by $25,000.
“So it had that added benefit that was never really part of what we were seeking to do,” Heuring said.
PRC Group is making the roughly $85 million investment to construct the complex. TCNJ students will send their rent checks to PRC, as will retail tenants such as Barnes & Noble, while the college will coordinate oversight of student life with the developer and its consultant.
Heuring said the financial arrangement ensured the project had no impact on TCNJ’s credit rating or credit outlook.
Equally important is that it allows the school to spend its cash on other greatly needed capital improvements, Heuring said. That includes more than $150 million worth of new and renovated facilities for its science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
“If we had to spend that from our own pocket, we couldn’t do anything else from the academic side or the student affairs side of our operations,” he said. “So this is preserving our capital resources for things that we really need.”