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Camas mulls UL campus ideas

School district bought 57-acre property, building for $11.5M in 2019

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Kelly Moyer/Post-Record A vacant, 115,000-square-foot building sits on the former UL campus in Camas on Monday, April 17, 2023.

Nearly four years after completing a $11.5 million purchase of the former Underwriters Laboratory (UL) campus near Skyridge Middle School, Camas School District officials are considering long-term uses for the 115,000-square-foot building and 57-acre campus.

“You have a very wide spectrum of development opportunities available to you,” Kirk Pawlowski, executive director of the Construction Services Group (CSG), an Educational Service District (ESD) 112 program, told Camas School Board members during the Board’s April 10 workshop. “We want to focus on how those opportunities can contribute to … the community, while supporting the school district’s long-term financial sustainability.”

The Camas School District purchased the former UL building and 57-acre campus — located next to the district’s Skyridge Middle School at 2600 N.W. Lake Road — for $11.5 million in June 2019.

Two months later, then Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell said the district was looking into leasing the building to private tenants until it could find a proper education-related use for the campus.

“This is a new arena for us,” Snell told school board members in August 2019 regarding leasing space to private companies. “We haven’t done this before.”

During the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school district leased the former UL building to Kagwerks, a company that offers firearms training throughout the country, designs and manufactures military gear and, according to the business’ website, provides “durable solutions that increase performance and enhance efficiency and lethality on the battlefield.”

Now, the school district is looking for more short- and long-term possibilities for the spacious property.

On April 10, Pawlowski said school district leaders should think of the UL building, acreage and Skyridge Middle School property as one large campus.

“We encourage you to think of that as one entity,” Pawlowski told the school board members.

The CSG consultants referred to the combination 57-acre UL campus property and 30-acre Skyridge property — both of which are located off Northwest Leadbetter Drive — as the “Leadbetter campus.”

The combined campus includes 87 acres, the Skyridge Middle School and the 30-year-old 115,000-square-foot corporate office building that operated as UL offices and research facilities from 1994 to 2019. The former UL site also includes 227 parking spaces for pasenger vehicles, a stormwater management system and 3,200 linear feet of paved roadway, Pawlowski said, adding that the UL site also still carries a business park zoning designation, which he told school board members “does limit some of what you can do here.”

The Business Park Zone in Camas does allow for most recreational, educational, library, auditorium and commercial uses, Pawlowski noted, but limits how much of the lot can be developed to help protect open space and prohibits residential development.

Some key considerations for developing the site, Pawlowski said, include safety, environmental impacts, the quality of the building and site design guidelines.

“You have to think about the fact that your campus is part of the larger community … and, one thing that resonated with us … is the fact that you’re providing programs to support students, families and the community,” Pawlowski told the school board. “That’s very unique in the state of Washington.”

Options emerge

The CSG consultants said they believe the school board may want to consider the following options for the combined Skyridge-UL “Leadbetter” campus:

Community Retail Development — Under this scenario, the school district could partner long-term with a nonprofit or for-profit property owner to create neighborhood retail or even subdivide the property or enter into what Pawlowski called a “community retail master lease” with multiple partners.

In this situation, the school district would likely operate as the property manager and could collect revenues through leases while saving the site for future school district uses.

Community Health and Wellness — “This is a community opportunity to support your mission and is not uncommon for school districts developing property,” Pawlowski told the school board members on April 10. “One of the things we often see in successful school district master leases associated with these recreational, health and wellness (developments) with for-profit entities is that the school district wants to lead that effort and establish the kind of partner you’d like to have on your campus. That is an example of leading and not being led.”

Pawlowski said it also is not uncommon for school districts to work with a local group of citizens that might want to create a local parks and recreation district.

One other option under this “health and wellness” umbrella would be for the school district to partner with a public agency or several public agencies such as the Port of Camas-Washougal or city of Camas to a joint partnership based on health and wellness.

That option, however, is “historically one of the most challenging approaches for school districts to undertake given your mission,” Pawlowski said.

Educational Opportunities for the Community — The CSG staff offered five scenarios, including:

• A career-connected learning or other educational program supporting the school district’s and regional students;

• A skills center governed by the state of Washington with a long-term building and parking lot lease;

• Keeping “the status quo” with the school district continuing to market the building for office, storage and other building uses until district leaders nail down what they would like to do with the property;

• The development of a “hybrid operation” in which the district does a combination of the above options; and

• A long-term lease with the state for a community college expansion.

Developing a skills center might also be a feasible option for the Leadbetter campus, the CSG staff said.

“Southwest Washington is, in our view, deeply underserved by skills centers in the state,” Pawlowski said. “It is a need that exists … and there is the potential of a regional skills center expansion, which (would be) funded through state funds.”

Costs of renovating

Heidi Hansen, of CSG, took a deeper look at what it might cost to renovate the former UL building for future uses.

“We took a look at the actual building,” Hansen told Camas School Board members during the April 10 workshop. “It is 30 years old and in need of some upgrades.”

The CSG staffers classified three types of spaces inside the former UL building: STEM/laboratory space, learning resources/classroom space and office/common area space.

A minor remodel of the entire building would cost around $46.6 million ($7 million for the common/office spaces, $19.2 million for the learning/classroom spaces and $20.3 million for the STEM/laboratory spaces).

A major remodel would cost around $70.55 million, according to the CSG information presented to the school board on April 10, including $8.8 million for the common/office spaces, $23.6 million for the learning/classroom spaces and $38.1 million for the STEM/laboratory spaces).

“The longer you wait, the more expensive it gets,” Hansen added, showing that the remodel figures bump up to $58.3 million for a minor remodel and to $88.3 million for a major remodel if school district leaders were to wait another five years.

Pawlowski said there is a “sense of urgency” to the district’s decision-making on the UL campus’ future.

“We urge you to make this a priority,” Pawlowski said. “You’re still in that exploratory phase for the next year-and-a-half. Hopefully, this will be helpful as you think about your path forward on this unbelievable community campus.”

Camas School Board President Corey McEnry said one of the reasons the district purchased the former UL building and campus was “because we had maximum flexibility with it and can do so many things (with the property).”

“We own a lot of property across our district. That is common. But the fact that this (property) has a building on it and more infrastructure makes it more obvious to people in our community,” McEnry said. “But we do have other property that we sit on until we need to use it or to swap it out.”

McEnry said he realizes it will become more expensive the longer the school board waits to make a decision on how best to utilize the former UL property, but added that he hopes the Board will “have the time to be really methodical on this.”

The district’s business manager, Jasen McEathron, agreed: “We do purchase property and we do it in advance to try to stretch our dollars. It’s very strategic on our part.”

McEathron said the district normally would have discussed the future of the former UL campus sooner, but that “it really couldn’t happen during COVID.”

“That was not the time,” McEathron said. “It was nice to have some time and distance from the pandemic to have this conversation.”

For more on this issue, visit camaspostrecord.com.