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University of Dubuque president Jeffrey Bullock released a public letter saying his institution must step away from the deal.
“You know, that’s the way these things go,” he said. “We did our best and we invested a couple of years in it, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that what the Sheldon Jackson board was looking for was not what we felt comfortable delivering.”
Bullock says in his letter that the Sheldon Jackson board was looking for someone to take over the entire campus and run it as it was previously operated. He says Dubuque’s leaders don’t believe that’s the right way to pursue education in Sitka.
Members of the board reached by KCAW would not go on the record, and Sheldon Jackson College President David Dobler could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Bullock says Dubuque was willing to put up money from its donors, and was looking for more money from the City of Sitka than the city was willing to give.
“In the configuration that I believe the city was looking for, I don’t think there was a prayer for this thing to be supported or successful financially,” he said.
He says city leaders made a verbal commitment of significant dollars, and then moved to what he called a “‘maybe in the future’ type of arrangement.” He also says Dubuque did not have the full political support of city leaders.
“I guess I can only speak for myself and say that the tone and the assignment of blame on the city side is a surprise, and I don’t think that it’s accurate,” said Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams.
“We spent our time, our treasure, our political capital, on not only getting to know Dubuque but also advocating in the state, for example, for the purchase of the Stratton Library for use at Sheldon Jackson museum,” McAdams said. “(That) was part of trying to restructure the college’s debt. So I think that the city, myself included, did do due diligence on the political end.”
McAdams graduated from Sheldon Jackson in 2000. He says the city has to weigh the costs of putting money into Dubuque against the benefits it Dubuque's investment would have in the community.
“I don’t see how the city had the capacity to be able to both help restructure $12 million in college debt and then try to come up with another $5, $6, or $7 million to seed a Dubuque enterprise that would have, at least initially, brought very few jobs and a very limited scope of services to the community,” he said.
Dubuque’s interest in Sheldon Jackson first popped up a couple years ago. Both schools have affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, and Dubuque itself nearly suffered the fate of Sheldon Jackson, coming close to closure about 10 years ago. Bullock, its current president, helped lead the turnaround, and officials in Sitka were hoping that the same thing could happen here.
Still, not everyone sees Dubuque’s departure as a bad thing.
“I’m almost embarrassed to feel this happy,” said Nancy Yaw Davis, whose father, Leslie Yaw, was the first president of Sheldon Jackson College.
Davis has been vocal about her wish to see the campus remain as intact as possible, and hopes to one day see it used again for educational purposes. She says the initial excitement about Dubuque was good.
“Leaders in our city went to Dubuque and I heard their chamber of commerce presentation, and things really sounded upbeat, and you thought ‘Oh! We’ve got the angel after all!’ We’ve got an incredible potential of a connection to a viable campus elsewhere, and it looked promising,” she said. “Then things didn’t follow through. There wasn’t any clear definition. We didn’t know what their plans were. But we were still hopeful. But then other things began to happen.”
For starters, proposals came forward from Sheldon Jackson’s property manager to subdivide parts of the campus in an effort to pay down the college’s debt.
And then there was Dubuque’s draft proposal for the campus, dated March 9th. A Dubuque board member was willing to put up $2 million to renovate Allen Hall. Dubuque wanted Sheldon Jackson to secure about $3 million in grants or donations to renovate the dorms. The proposal also asked the city to spend the money to tear down the Sage Building, which houses the Sitka Sound Science Center and its hatchery. A new building would go in its place to be a new interpretive center and aquarium.
The rest of the campus would be sold off.
In Davis's view, finally having an answer on Dubuque’s interest – even if it’s not the answer initially hoped for – means things can move forward. Davis says she sees a lot of potential for the campus.
“Art programs, music programs, science programs. There can be new businesses on campus,” she said. “There can be a wholesome extension of this really incredibly exciting town, with historic content.”
Sitka Economic Development Association director Garry White says he agrees with Davis that there’s lots of potential, but setting up the deals and figuring out how to make it happen could be a challenge.
Davis says she's not sure how that can happen, either.
“Maybe we need a messiah,” she said. “I think we've been waiting for decades for a messiah and the manna.”
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey and Iowa Public Radio’s Dean Borg contributed to this report.
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