CSU campus in Palm Desert: City presses on as school officials note issues

Sherry Barkas
Palm Springs Desert Sun

Just a few short weeks before California shut down non-essential businesses, closed schools and ordered all residents to shelter at home, the state was exploring the possibility of building at least one new four-year college, possibly in Palm Desert.

But on Tuesday, the California State University board and chancellor said in response to the site study that looked at Palm Desert, Stockton/Stanislaus County, Concord, Chula Vista and San Mateo County, that if a new campus is built, it will be well into the future, if at all.

Not only did the study find that enrollment would not grow enough over the next 15 years to warrant a new campus, but the state just passed a budget that required cuts and reductions in costs to cover an estimated $54.3 billion deficit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the end of the day, we can only spend our dollars once and what we don’t want to do is start and starve,” CSU Chancellor Timothy White told the board on Tuesday when the site study was reviewed.

“Whether it’s a full-blown campus or a branch campus or satellite, or whatever titles we want to use, it does require resources and you can’t take that away from something else that you need to start … something else,” White said.

California State University Palm Desert Campus is photographed in late February 2020.

Even so, the city of Palm Desert remains committed to its belief that the CSU San Bernardino satellite campus off Cook Street is the best location for the next standalone campus and believes now is not the time to sit silent until the state deems the time is right to revisit the topic.

To keep the ball in the air and be sure Palm Desert’s – and the Coachella Valley’s – voice is heard in Sacramento and by the governor, the city has set up a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, seeded with $150,000 from the city’s Economic Development Reserve funds plus $30,000 recently donated by the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“I think it’s more important now than ever,” Councilmember Sabby Jonathan said in an interview Thursday night.

“Our goal of having Cal State being a standalone independent campus is not simply so we have it or, so we have a name, it is part of the broader goal of diversifying our economy and, frankly, improving the lives of all our residents, from the west end of the valley to the east end,” Jonathan said.

The Coachella Valley’s number one industry is tourism which feeds millions of dollars into the local economy each year. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought travel to a near standstill and this year canceled major tourism-driven events, including the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament and Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals.

As cities valleywide dig into reserves, lay off staff and trim services to cover millions of dollars in lost revenues from hotel and sales taxes, officials are once again saying that the valley needs a diversified economy, which a standalone university can help to build.

 “If we didn’t embrace that goal before, COVID-19 has shown us how critical it is to the quality of life to our residents to have that economy diversified,” Jonathan said.

How we got here

The city, along with valley educators, other leaders and philanthropic organizations, set out on a mission to create a Cal State University campus in Palm Desert 25 years ago, and Jonathan said he has been part of the effort since the beginning.

Jonathan was on the board that brought the campus its first dean, he said.

“We were operating out of trailers on the (College of the Desert) campus,” he said. “So, I’m not giving up.”

At Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request, $4 million was set aside in the 2019-20 state budget to explore at least one and possibly two new CSU campuses. Initially Newsom had requested a study only of a potential Stockton campus, but expanded that study to include more sites at the urging of state legislators.

In February, CSU contracted with HOK design, architecture, engineering and planning firm, which examined each of the five sites, weighing a variety of criteria for each, including:

  • enrollment demand for over the next 15 years;
  • benefit to the workforce in the surrounding area of the proposed campus location;
  • available facilities; and
  • relationship to a community college campus.

The study was completed on July 1 and found that Palm Desert offered a variety of advantages over other proposed sites.

Over the past 25 years, the city of Palm Desert has donated nearly 170 acres of land off of Cook Street to California State University with the understanding that the current CSU San Bernardino satellite campus would ultimately become a standalone four-year college, CSU Palm Desert.

For one, it would have a greater ability to serve historically under-represented minorities, low-income students and first-generation students than other proposed campus sites, the report stated.

In addition, Palm Desert’s CSU San Bernardino satellite campus is sitting on nearly 170 acres of build-ready land the city donated to the state with the understanding that an independent university would one day be built bearing the name California State University, Palm Desert.

The current satellite campus, with three academic buildings and a 300-seat theater and infrastructure, has been built through local funding and donations. The campus had a spring semester enrollment of 1,609 – 93% undergraduate students and the remaining 7% post baccalaureate and graduate students. The campus awarded 421 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in June – the highest number in the history of the campus, which opened in 1986.

A standalone CSU campus would mean full development of the site with more buildings and facilities, and with them, the ability to increase enrollment, add more programs and expand those that exist now.

Another advantage of the Palm Desert campus is a demonstrated history of philanthropic giving that could help meet the more than $100 million needed for construction of a full campus, the study found.

While the CSU trustees discussed the study and its findings on Tuesday, it was not required to take any action but to pass it along to the Legislature and governor which will ultimately make the decision of where – or if – a new campus will be built.

The study by HOK also found that overall enrollment at CSU campuses is not expected to grow at a rate that would require a new campus.

Aside from the financial cost for building a new campus and availability of such funds is the question of whether the pandemic will reduce the need for classrooms or virtual learning will be preferred by students – a question CSU trustees and others say they can’t yet answer.  

Chancellor White said during Tuesday's board meeting it would be a year or two before that question can be answered.

Setting up, monitoring the nonprofit

After that February site review and round-table discussion by the HOK team, the question among Palm Desert and other valley leaders was: “What do we do now,” said Wayne Olson, senior analyst for the city.

It was decided that a broader communication strategy in Sacramento was needed.

“If you look at the data, Palm Desert leads in almost every socio-economic indicator that the report was looking at for the expansion of a four-year campus,” Olson said.

City staff created the 501 (c)(4) nonprofit, now called “Priority One Coachella Valley” – or P1CV – and proposed it to the City Council on March 12 along with a recommendation that it be seeded with $100,000 from the Economic Development Reserves fund. It won unanimous approval by the City Council.

The expectation was that other agencies, organizations and individuals also would donate to the fund. But then pandemic hit, shutting down the economy and the donations didn’t come. In May, the City Council approved another $50,000 allocation. Since then, the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau also has put in $30,000, giving the nonprofit $180,000 to start.

As state and other funding sources dwindle, local governments have found that creating 501 (c)(4) nonprofit corporations can help fill the gap and provide funds for a variety of things, including maintaining city landmarks and community parks and libraries, or to build a convention center or sports complex.

Under the amended bylaws and agreement approved by the City Council in a special meeting on Thursday, Priority One Coachella Valley:

  • will function as an entity separate from the city and will not be included in the city’s Comprehensive Annual Finance Report.
  • will function to enhance the education, arts, environment and economic resources for residents and guests of the Greater Coachella Valley.
  • will serve as a regional entity with a board that is not controlled by Palm Desert council members or staff appointed by the city.
  • will meet in open sessions, according to rules of the Brown Act and make available to the public agendas, financial records and all other documents that fall under the public records act.
  • will be overseen by a seven-member board currently made up of Palm Desert Councilmembers Sabby Jonathan and Jan Harnik and City Manager Lauri Aylaian; Coachella Valley Economic Partnership CEO Joe Wallace; Greater Palm Springs Area Convention & Visitors Center President/CEO Scott White; and two at-large community seats still to be filled.

The agreement also specifies that the allocation of $150,000 is a one-time payment of city funds for seed funding. However, that does not mean that Priority One Coachella Valley can’t come back and request more money, which the City Council can approve or deny, said City Attorney Bob Hargreaves.

“I can assure you that no one on that board wants to come back and ask for money,” said Councilwoman Jan Harnik, who also sits on the P1CV board. “But if we were $20,000 away from the finish line, for us not to be able to come back to the City Council and ask for the council to consider and vote on that, I think we’re cutting ourselves short.”

Meetings so far have been on an as-needed basis by video conference, Jonathan said. But with Thursday’s action by the council, the meetings now fall under the Brown Act, opening them for public attendance and comments, and will initially be announced via the city’s website – which will have postings or a link to Priority One Coachella Valley information.

“There is an intent for 100% transparency,” Jonathan said. “This was not about create a separate entity that is not accountable to the people. Far from it.”

The board had been meeting at City Hall, but now will be based at the CVEP building on Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs – at zero cost for rent. At this point, the only expense has been the consultant’s fee, Jonathan said.

There is no paid staff, and won’t be, he said, and board members are not being paid either.

“Or our intent is to have a dedicated website, nothing fancy, but really for the purpose of maintaining that transparency,” Jonathan said.

Hiring a consultant

Once formed, one of the board’s first action was to hire a consultant who would help promote the city in Sacramento.

In May, P1CV contracted with Strategies 360 – a Seattle-based consulting and PR firm with 24 locations, including an office in Sacramento. The contract is through December and for an amount not to exceed $65,000.

Greg Hayes, Strategies 360 vice president for the Sacramento office, said his job is to make sure the decision-makers in Sacramento know Palm Desert and the Coachella Valley – and likewise keep P1CV apprised of what is happening at the state capital.

“Not enough people up north, and particularly in Sacramento and particularly the decision-makers are that aware of the Coachella Valley,” Hayes said.

This is Hayes’s first time working with a city to get a college campus, but past major projects have included getting a new stadium in Sacramento for the Kings, to keep the NBA team from relocating, and getting a San Francisco Giants AAA stadium built in West Sacramento.

When approached to assist Palm Desert, Hayes said it was a no-brainer.

The CSU study shows, Palm Desert “is heads and shoulders above the other five sites” with its underserved population, he said.

The Coachella Valley “is a wonderful place but it is a region that is not served well in terms of higher education opportunities,” he said.

He and valley leaders say a full-fledged standalone campus offering technical training and degrees would be a benefit to the local economy.

Joe Wallace the CEO of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership talks about the economy over the last year during the CVEP Summit in Palm Springs, November 19, 2019.

“Having a university campus that offers technical degrees is a prerequisite for attraction of jobs that pay good wages.  It is also essential to grow a business that starts organically as the iHub companies have,” said Joe Wallace, CVEP executive director and chair of the P1CV board. “They all have difficulty hiring technically literate employees which makes quality growth quite difficult.”

The companies in the valley that need technical or even management talent must go outside the valley to find it, Wallace said. 

In addition, the Coachella Valley cannot grow leaders with roots here without the educational opportunities.

“If you look across the country for locations that offer both quality of life and lucrative career paths, they all have a stand-alone university,” Wallace said. “For a population of 600,000-plus to not have a four-year comprehensive state university is a travesty and it dooms many of our young people to choosing between prosperity and family.”

He and Hayes spoke of the pandemic’s potential affect on education and what a future campus might look like, not knowing yet how much virtual learning will be preferred over in-classroom learning.

Hayes believes students will still want to be on campus for many of their classes and the overall college experience.

So, the campus of the future may still include classrooms and buildings, but not as many.

“If we could magically make a campus appear we would move on to bandwidth which is the other thing holding the valley back,” Wallace said.

He said the need for access to a college education has not changed, but the method of delivery most certainly has, and perhaps the Palm Desert campus would be the “online learning center for the CSU system and offer hybrid degrees of all kinds to students.”

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 or (760) 778-4694. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherry