By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor

Enrollment at Park University’s downtown campus is going gangbusters – so much so it’s leasing more space from Gilbert.

Town Council last week unanimously approved the campus’ expansion to 17,837 square feet from 10,411 square feet at the four-story Gilbert University Building near Ash Street and Vaughn Avenue in the Heritage District.

Council also extended the Missouri-based private university’s original three-year lease to five years, ending in 2023 instead of 2021.

“In the past year Park University went from one student…and today we stand before you to announce that in a few days short of three weeks we’ll welcome around 300 students to Park Gilbert,” said Jeff Ehrlich, town resident and executive director of university’s Gilbert campus.

“As you know we began our journey with a few offices and a couple of classrooms,” he told council members. “Today, we use nearly half of the university building.”

He said it’s expected the campus will reach 750 students in five years.

“It is our hope that we will continue to grow within the university building,” Ehrlich added. “I believe we will eclipse this projection long before our fifth year.

“We didn’t come to dip our toe in the educational water. No, we are here. We are Gilbert’s university. We buy houses, we pay rent at apartments, we buy groceries. We enjoy the Heritage District and all that comes with such a wonderful town.”

The liberal arts university opened for classes in fall 2018 with an anticipation of enrolling 300 students by the end of its original three-year lease.

“This is tremendous growth and something we can celebrate,” Mayor Jenn Daniels said.

Councilman Jared Taylor also applauded the university’s success and asked that Council consider in September the likelihood of selling the building.

Under the new lease, the university now will pay the town an annual rent of $463,902 for the second year and $539,646 the third year, fourth and fifth years.

Over the initial five-year term, Park University will pay $2.2 million in rent to Gilbert, according to town staff.

This year the university also will kick off its inaugural season of intercollegiate athletics with the launch of men’s and women’s basketball, soccer, volleyball, golf, men baseball, softball, and women beach volleyball.

Park University’s progress is good news for the town, which was left in a bind after it built the 87,000-square-foot building with $36 million in taxpayer money for Saint Xavier University.

The Catholic institution inked a 15-year lease with Gilbert in 2015 but not even a year in the new building, it announced it was leaving. It paid a $4 million penalty for breaking the lease.

The building basically sat empty from 2016 until 2018 when Park University moved in.

University of Arizona had a limited presence there with coding boot camp classes in 2017 and earlier this year, it took over the entire third floor with its nursing program.

The Gilbert Campus is Park’s second location in the Phoenix area and third campus in Arizona. The university has campuses at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale and at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.

Ehrlich said with the approval the campus will continue to  bring new employees, expand marketing and add assets to the university but most importantly to continue academics that offers degrees that make sense, are finished in four years and has a tuition “that is far below any other private institution in the Valley.”