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Proposed Retail Development on Campus Draws Capacity Crowds at Master Plan Forums

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The possibility that the university would lease agriculture land to big box retail stores drew the attention and objections of some 600 people who attended two public forums on updates to the campus master plan held Tuesday in New Hampshire Hall and the MUB Theater.

President Mark Huddleston said that while a form of public-private venture may be appropriate for some UNH property, big box stores do not belong on UNH agricultural land.

“In the wake of the state’s historic cut in funding for higher education, UNH obviously needs to continue to be aggressive in exploring alternative revenue streams,” Huddleston said. “At the same time, we must never forget that the purpose of generating revenue is to allow us to pursue our academic missions. We should not and will not contemplate changes to the campus that compromise those missions. It is clear in this case that further discussion is necessary to ensure that any projected development and core missions are aligned.”

So many people showed up at New Hampshire Hall that the overflow filled the gym where Paul Chamberlin, assistant vice president for Energy and Campus Development, stood on a chair while fielding questions from the crowd.

Before the public comments gave voice to the opposition, a show of hands at both forums indicated there was little support, if any, for the idea of joint partnerships that would trade open land on the west side of campus for large retail stores. The majority of faculty, staff, students and Durham residents who spoke out called for UNH to remain as it is.

If a retail plan was struck, UNH would grant a long-term lease of its land, not sell it, UNH architect Doug Bencks said. He said he did not know how much revenue such a deal would generate. At present, town zoning prohibits retail development.

One proposal of development north of Main Street would mean tearing down the greenhouses, Putnam Hall, and the equestrian center and relocating them elsewhere on campus.

“If you take the land away, it’s gone forever and you will change the face of UNH dramatically,” said Alina Harris, a senior majoring in sustainable agriculture and food production systems who gave voice to the sentiments of many who said the move would be irreversible.  

Durham resident and former state rep. Marjorie Smith said there is a better way to meet the needs of the university than to surrender any of its land. She also asked how much money a public-private retail partnership would generate.

“What does the university get for giving up open land?” Smith said. Bencks said he didn’t know how much revenue would be generated.

Calling the idea “totally inappropriate” one forum attendee said bringing retail development to Durham would make a mockery of the university’s commitment to sustainability.

Iago Hale, assistant professor of specialty crop improvement, said he understood that the state budget cuts had “put the university in a tough place” but taking open land for retail use would be “phenomenally shortsighted,” adding that any development “should and must” complement the mission of the university.

“Any private development that erodes the land base is going to cheapen the campus and sends the signal that we’ve… forgotten who we are, why we come here,” Hale said.

Another forum is scheduled for Tuesday, April 24, at 12:40 – 2 p.m. in the MUB Strafford Room.

While the master plan update was intended to be completed by June, Huddleston has said the work of the steering committee will continue to assure that everyone’s point of view has been heard.

A video of the public forum at New Hampshire Hall and additional information is available at http://www.unh.edu/cmp/.

Also included in the master plan update are a new center for the arts, the location of which will be on C Lot, and the development of graduate housing that will now be located closer to the core campus. Other possible public-private ventures discussed were a new stadium with a fitness center and a hotel adjacent to the core campus and a research park on Main Street.