Durham County

Consultants helping NCCU leaders rethink housing strategy and partnerships

Trustees at N.C. Central University are studying the possibility of setting up some sort of public-private partnership to develop new student housing on campus, to perhaps include orchestrating the renovation and reopening of long-closed Chidley Hall.

They and campus administrators are working with a couple of different consulting firms, and by summer hope to secure from them an estimate of the potential market demand for student housing at Central and some preliminary ideas about how to frame a deal to get it.

One of the consultants, Wilson Jones, cautioned that NCCU officials will have to think carefully both about their goals and financial assumptions.

As an institution, “you have the momentum that would attract a good partner regardless of [a deal’s] structure, but that’s one of the variables that comes out in negotiation,” he said. “These decisions are long-term decisions and can’t be taken lightly.”

He and a second consultant, Rob Nelson, said an arrangement using a non-profit shell corporation to take a building off NCCU’s formal balance sheet while keeping the university in firm control would be most familiar to UNC system and state regulators. But it’s also possible to set up a “joint ownership” contracts with private-sector developers, or outsource to them entirely.

“There are a million ways to do this,” Jones said.

But the key thing is to figure out up front “how much room we have to grow,” Interim Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said, drawing agreement from trustees.

NCCU now enrolls about 8,100 students, but campus leaders have argued it can grow over the next 15 years or so to serve about 10,000 a year. Planning for the university’s new student union, which will go up on the corner of Fayetteville and Cecil streets, has unfolded on that assumption.

But expansion could also stress the rest of the institution’s budget, Akinleye said, listing faculty and classroom space among the other things NCCU might have to add to service a larger student population.

Beyond that, “we may have a land problem,” trustee Harold Epps mused, noting that Central’s also short on parking.

Dorm space, however, is front and center because the university last year implemented a new campus-residency requirement for incoming students. Originally, it was supposed to cover freshman and sophomores, but renovation needs and overall uncertainty about the right strategy for additional dorm construction prompted administrators and trustees to back away from the idea of imposing the residency mandate on rising sophomores this fall.

Chidley, closed since the early 2000s, has figured in recent dorm space expansion debates. But officials reckon it’d cost about $19 million to renovate it, and given maintenance needs elsewhere, NCCU’s housing program isn’t necessarily ready to shoulder the expense.

Another, related issue is that NCCU have to decide on the rough percentage of students they’d like to see living on campus. That touches on the age-old difference between “commuter” schools, where the vast majority of the student population’s only around during the day, and “residential” ones where a third of more of the students are in campus housing.

NCCU officials believe a larger percentage of campus dwellers is better in principle, and would contribute to more students finishing their degrees, but they have to reckon with both financial and physical constraints.

In any event, front-end planning’s vital, said Akinleye and Michael Johnson, chairman of the trustees’ finance committee.

“We’re trying to give you a sense of what all the issues are,” Johnson told his colleagues. “This is not something we can be off on. The analysis is really important.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg