By wayne schutsky

GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert is one step closer to bringing a four-year institution back to town now that Missouri-based Park University received the accreditations needed to open its campus in the town.

The university received approval from the Higher Learning Commission and the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education to open its campus, which will occupy 11,000 square feet of space on the first floor of the four-story University Building, vacated by St. Xavier University more than a year ago.

Park University plans to begin offering classes in time for its Fall II semester, which starts Oct. 15.

Jeff Ehrlich, Gilbert campus executive director for Park University, said the university chose Gilbert for a variety of reasons, including the forecasted population growth in the town and surrounding areas.

He also said Gilbert’s values aligned well with Park University’s.

“We have enjoyed collaborating with Park University to provide academic degree programs that support Gilbert’s educational goals,” Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said. “The university has great plans to immerse themselves in the community, and we look forward to supporting those efforts.”

On a more practical note, Ehrlich said, the availability of the town’s University Building also played a role in Park’s decision.

“This building was available and it is state of the art,” he said.

Taxpayers funded the construction of the $34 million building and Gilbert was relying on rent payments from St. Xavier to offset the debt it incurred.

However, those payments disappeared when St. Xavier abandoned the building only nine months after opening because of financial concerns at its main campus in Illinois.

St. Xavier came to an agreement with the town to pay a $4 million penalty for backing out of its 15-year lease. That should cover debt service through January 2019.

Gilbert’s most recent budget shows the town spent an estimated $279,050 maintaining the building in the last fiscal year. It budgeted $251,500 for maintain the building for the upcoming year.

Park University will pay $799,128 in rent over the course of its three-year lease. The agreement with Gilbert also includes two- and three-year lease extension options.

While Park University’s presence will not completely make up for loss of St. Xavier’s rent, the university has entertained the possibility of eventually expanding its presence in the building.

“We do have every intention to hopefully fill this building up,” Ehrlich said. “We would love to keep expanding upwards.”

When it opens, the university will offer accelerated eight-week terms with night classes aimed at adult students. By the end of its third year, the university plans to expand the schedule to include traditional 16-week terms.

According to a university statement, it will offer undergraduate degrees in business administration and management, communications, criminal justice administration and fitness and wellness.

It also will offer graduate programs, including a master of business administration, master of education in education technology, master of education in educational leadership with principal certification, master of healthcare administration and master of public administration.

Park University estimated it will have 300 students by the end of its initial three-year lease, and it has plans to continue growing in the town. Ehrlich said the university would like to grow the Gilbert Campus to 600 to 800 students.

He said that growth will help the school field a competitive sports program that will include 12 athletic teams.

“We want to give them the opportunity to be students first and athletes second,” Ehrlich said. However, he added that “we want to come here and be competitive.”

Rather than build its own sports facilities, it will utilize facilities in the area.

While he would not confirm which facilities it was looking to utilize, Ehrlich said the university was in contact with the Town of Gilbert and local high schools and community colleges.

He said, “We see this as a partnership not a rental,” and that the university intends to be invested in whatever facilities it uses.

“We want it to be our home as much as it is their home,” Ehrlich said. “We want to be a good steward of the relationship and make sure we do our fair share to make sure those fields are the best they can be.”