Lawmakers trying to secure $80M for stand-alone CSU campus in Palm Desert, but city leaders are growing impatient

Sherry Barkas
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Cal State University San Bernardino's Palm Desert Campus is the only four-year university in the Coachella Valley.

While state legislators continue to work with Palm Desert leaders to secure $80 million to further develop a Cal State University stand-alone campus, city officials say they are running low on patience. 

During a goal-setting workshop on Monday, city council members each said getting the stand-alone campus remains a priority. However, at some point, if it doesn’t appear the state will come through, the city might consider taking back the land and examining other options for higher education, but officials didn't say what those might be. 

Palm Desert Mayor Jan Harnik told The Desert Sun she isn’t ready to pull the plug just yet, and has been working closely with Assemblyman Chad Mayes to get the funding needed from the state to move forward.

When the land was gifted by the city to CSU about 25 years ago, it was with the intent it would one day become a standalone Cal State University Palm Desert campus, Harnik said.

The contract between the city and state “was clear that that land was given so that one day there would be an independent campus in Palm Desert, serving our region,” Harnik said.

Along the way, the state lost track of that plan, Harnik said, and the city and state legislators are working to get it back on the front burner.

“We are working hard” to get the campus built, Harnik said. “We’re going to continue discussions. But we don’t just want empty promises, we want a plan. A plan that tells us our community and our valley and region will have that independent campus with relevant education in the future …,” she said.

Top priority for local legislators

Securing the funding to move forward plans for a standalone campus is the number one priority for Mayes in his final year in office, his legislative director John Knobel said.

“You need the student union. You need the cafeteria, the student services … to continue expanding the campus. So, that’s what we’re working on this year with Sen. Rosilicie (Ochoa Bogh) and Assemblymember (Eduardo) Garcia,” Knobel said.

Mayes announced in January that he would not seek reelection in November. He has served in the state Assembly since 2014.

“This is what he’s going to be spending all his political capital on,” Knobel said.

The Cal State University San Bernardino satellite campus in Palm Desert opened in 1986 on the College of the Desert campus. In 2002, it moved to Cook Street, on 168 acres of land donated to the state by the City of Palm Desert. 

To date, just 18 acres of the CSU San Bernardino satellite campus site have been built out to include three academic buildings and a 300-seat theater, all constructed with local philanthropic dollars.

The infrastructure is in place, making the site build-ready for expansion.

City and Coachella Valley officials have long said a standalone campus would mean a greater ability to serve historically under-represented minorities, low-income students and first-generation students.

The nearest public and private four-year campuses include the Cal State San Bernardino’s home campus in San Bernardino, and the University of Redlands – a private university – which are at least 40 miles away and difficult to get to for those without their own transportation.

Graduates walk to their seats at the Cal State University San Bernardino, Palm Desert Campus commencement ceremony, Rancho Mirage, Calif., Thursday, June 14, 2018.

Should the city at some point decide to reclaim the land, Harnik said there are other options for higher education for that site that would be explored, but she doesn’t feel that is a necessary step — at this point. But it would always be used for higher education, she said.

‘A no-brainer’

Knobel has worked on other budget proposals to create the standalone campus in Palm Desert over the past four years he has been with Mayes’ office, and is optimistic that this year, the funding will be approved to begin that process.

Work is underway to submit legislation for $80 million to build a student services center — a necessary first step in establishing a standalone campus.

“We’re still pretty early on,” Knobel said, and meeting with budget committee staff to draft a formal request which would need to be submitted in April.

Mayes has also received the support of the Cal State University Chancellor and CSU San Bernardino, Knobel said.

“CSUSB is supportive of the project. It’s something they’re going to actively help us pursue this year, which is a good change from years past,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s preliminary budget includes money for capital improvement projects at CSU campuses, Knobel said, and adding student services in Palm Desert would fall into that category.

Garcia agreed that a student services center would better position the Palm Desert site for a standalone campus.

The final decision for a full-blown standalone campus will come from the Cal State board of directors and the governor, Garcia said.

But a CSU-authorized analysis done of Palm Desert and four other sites in the state – Stockton, Concord, Chula Vista and San Mateo County – just before the pandemic found that Palm Desert offered a variety of advantages over other proposed sites, including that it is build ready.

It also supported what officials have long said, that a Palm Desert campus would have a greater ability to serve minorities and low-income students than other proposed sites.

“For us, it’s about making sure that we remain at the top, at the forefront of the selection process,” Garcia said.

The population of the Coachella Valley calls for this type of investment, Garcia said, and the philanthropy community and city have done all that they can to bring a full-fledged campus to Palm Desert.

“We all see this as a win-win for families and students and the economic diversity of the region moving forward,” Garcia said. “This is a no-brainer for Chad Mayes and I to team up once … to obtain some resources for the college and also make this dream a reality.”

These endeavors don’t happen overnight, Garcia said, but over the several years and require patience when the ultimate decision is in the hands of the governor and Cal State board of directors.

“I think we’ve done everything we could to make the best case about our region being selected and if it doesn’t happen this year, we’re going to keep pushing,” Garcia said.

Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas covers the cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. She can be reached at sherry.barkas@thedesertsun.com. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherryBarkas