Joint Finance Committee provides aid to communities losing two-year UW schools

Communities that have lost a two-year University of Wisconsin branch campus are eligible for grants of up to $2 million.

The state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved releasing $20 million to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for a grant program to help communities rehabilitate closed campuses.

Six two-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin System have closed or announced they will close due to declining enrollment and budget shortfalls. The closures affect communities in Outagamie, Fond du Lac, Washington, Richland, Marinette and Waukesha counties.

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The grants can be used by cities, towns, villages or counties for redevelopment costs, including planning and demolition costs, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The grants can also be used for projects on former campus sites that help create jobs, develop the local workforce, support small businesses or encourage housing, according to the fiscal office.

The Municipal Assistance Funding Act requires WEDC to provide grants to Fond du Lac, Washington, Marinette and Richland counties if they meet the requirements, the IRS said.

The money has essentially been in limbo since March, when Governor Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill providing those funds to communities affected by branch closures.

In May, Evers and WEDC urged lawmakers to release the funds, calling it “critical” that communities breathe new life into shuttered campuses. Evers also urged lawmakers to increase investment in the state university system to prevent further layoffs and closures.

Now that the funds have been released, WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes said the agency hopes to open grant applications by August 1.

“We know communities need these resources and we want to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible,” she said.

Hughes also said the release of funds gives the state an opportunity to support communities experiencing “major changes” as a result of campus closures.

She said local authorities were not only concerned about the buildings and grounds, but the loss of students presented additional challenges.

“We want to invest in these communities to ensure they have the resources they need to manage this change,” she said.

The vote in the Joint Finance Committee came just days before the first meeting of a state Legislature committee investigating the future of Wisconsin’s university system. The committee will study demographic trends affecting the state’s colleges and assess the universities’ needs.

A student sits at a table and reads a book. Next to her are a lunch box and a water bottle.
Biology student Aliyah Sander studies between classes at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland Student Center in Richland Center, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Angela Major/WPR

At Tuesday’s meeting, Democratic state Rep. Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay said she was pleased the committee was making progress in assisting affected communities.

But she also urged lawmakers to ensure the remaining sites are “fully funded” as they serve as economic engines for Wisconsin.

“I would like to see this committee provide more support in the future and in the next budget,” Andraca said. “That means that when things need to be done and there is money in the budget to do it, we don’t hold up requests and we don’t make the campuses wait very long.”

Communities are already planning for the future

The latest campus to announce its closure after a two-year run is UW-Oshkosh Fox Cities in Menasha, whose buildings are jointly owned by Outagamie and Winnebago counties and where in-person classes will cease next June.

The school’s board of trustees met last month to discuss the school’s future, but as WGBA-TV reported, the meeting ended with more questions than answers.

In Fond du Lac County, in-person classes at UW-Oshkosh Fond du Lac officially ended in May, and officials have been discussing the next steps for the campus since last year.

County Executive Sam Kaufman said he unveiled a plan last month to transform the two-year college into what is known as the Fond du Lac County Campus.

On the site, Kaufman said, some classrooms will be converted into state and county offices, the performing arts center will be converted into a community events center, the gymnasium will be converted into a sports complex and some land will be sold for residential development.

In addition, an arts building will be converted into a training center for correctional officers that would complement the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office’s use of force training simulator, the county executive said.

“This would be a facility that would not only be open to Fond du Lac County law enforcement, but we would basically expand it to every law enforcement agency from Milwaukee all the way up to Green Bay,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman said the Fond du Lac County Board will vote on the plan later this month. He said the proposal would generate enough revenue to pay for itself and would not be a burden on local taxpayers.

While a $2 million redevelopment grant will not cover the entire project cost, Kaufman said drawing up plans for the facility was made easier by the county’s ability to count on state help.

“I’ve already made decisions and plans on how we’re going to fund the remainder,” Kaufman said. “The $2 million will definitely help us. It won’t be the answer for us, but it will definitely help us.”