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University of Alaska Fairbanks builds for the future with public-private partnership

The new addition to the Wood Center on the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus was a long time coming. Ten years ago, planning committees had hoped to get the renovation ball rolling by hiring a consultant to help prioritize the campus’s needs. “[The plan] was put to a vote among students and it did not pass. So that kind of got pushed off to the side,” explains Lydia Anderson, director of the new Wood Center.

Fast-forward to 2013, where the university finds itself with a new foodservice contractor, NANA Management Services, a larger student body and a desire to provide new services. Unable to obtain funding from the state, the planning committee sought out a different source—a public-private partnership. Anderson explains the agreement as such: “The university went out and found a private investor that was basically going to go out and get the dollars to build what we need and then go under contract and the university would then, over the course of the contract, make payments back to that private investor to the point that that contract is complete and completely paid for.” Through a bidding process, the National Development Council was chosen as the partner for the project.

The 30-year contract has helped to build the $28 million addition to the existing Wood Center. The addition’s design takes its cues from the university’s landscape. “The whole theme is really Alaska, organic, Northern Lights,” Anderson describes. Using the colors of the Northern Lights as a palette, “We have a lot of the same meandering lines [as the Northern Lights] upstairs and downstairs. We have colored glass panels that are on the whole new addition, [which] is south facing and is about 90% glass,” she says. “When the sun is shining in on those colored glass panels and it lights up the floor, it’s pretty amazing.”

The new space is multifunctional, with office space, several retail dining outlets and a coffee shop, as well as a market-style dining concept with six stations, called Dine 49, “because we’re the 49th state,” says Pamm Zierfuss-Hubbard, contract manager.

The new construction will shutter the previous foodservice facility, the Lola Tilly Commons, built in the 1960s. At the Wood Center, “Everything is fresh made, which will be very different than what was, as you might imagine, an aging facility that was all you care to eat,” Zierfuss-Hubbard says.

The addition is part of master phased project plan, which includes the addition of dormitories to create a centralized campus facility. Though the agreement does have some limitations because the partnership creates a sort of landlord/tenant situation, among a few other issues,

Anderson and Zierfuss-Hubbard say the partnership allowed the university to complete the addition and positively impact student engagement. The team plans to try “a bunch of different ways to get students more engaged with campus and using food as one of those ways to keep them engaged—if anything [the new facility allows for] longer hours for our students, which, quite honestly, has been the biggest thing they’ve complained about,” Anderson says. 

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