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Our view: New plant comes with many benefits

Herald editorial board

Facts were proclaimed before, during and after Tuesday's ceremonies to break ground for a new utility plant at UND.

Among them:

■ The old steam plant — built in 1909 — is run down and, without replacement, will be a money pit. In 2014, the plant was identified as needing major capital investment, including a $20 million boiler repair/replacement. Earlier this year, steam plant employees gave a tour of the old plant to two Herald staffers; the age of the system was alarming. Some of the equipment is so old the university no longer can buy replacement parts.

■ The new plant, which should be ready by 2020, will cost $75 million or more. But instead of petitioning the state for the funds, UND is entering a 40-year private-public partnership with Johnson Controls while using dollars already allocated to the school annually.

■ This project will help reduce mounting deferred maintenance on campus.

■ The new plant will burn natural gas, which is a cleaner alternative to coal.

These are the objective facts.

But a subjective observation stands out. UND President Mark Kennedy said when he first came to the campus, he wondered how a steam plant — this dated and obtrusive factory — was located immediately on the campus, near some of the university's most attractive sites.

If Kennedy — just a guest at the time — noticed this on his first visit, have others? Do prospective students dwell on that factory on the university's southeast side?

For the past 109 years, it's possible, and we wonder how many decisions it affected.

A 2005 study by a Washington State University assistant horticulture professor found prospective students often choose a college not on education, but on campus appearance. Phillip S. Waite studied North American campuses for more than two years and concluded most students base much of their decision on the first 10 minutes of a campus visit. They base it on appearance of the buildings and landscape, and often without even realizing it, he concluded in a report published on WSU Insider.

And a 2015 article in the magazine University Business noted that institutions nationwide are discovering a correlation between campus aesthetics and academic reputation.

At UND, the new plant will be placed farther away from the main activity of campus. In the future, it will be located on the southwest side of campus and it will be 12,000 square feet smaller than the current behemoth. In fact, it was difficult to find the new location for many who attended Tuesday's groundbreaking.

The new steam plant will come with all sorts of benefits. The public-private partnership will save millions of taxpayer dollars over the years. The energy it produces will be notably cleaner. The old plant will come down around 2020, adding beauty and creating possibilities to an area that today lacks charm.

A potential benefit is that by getting the new facility farther from campus activity, it actually could spur enrollment in coming years.

Sure, that's subjective and to some, perhaps a bit whimsical. But then again, so are the decisions of some prospective students.