It’s been a little more than three years since Franklin University stepped in at the last minute and acquired Urbana University’s assets. But in that time, Washington, the executive vice president and provost, estimated Franklin has poured more than $15 million into Urbana’s facilities as part of a long-term plan to attract new students and shore up a campus that was on the verge of closing for good.
“I don’t think there’s a place you can see that we haven’t impacted with investments,” Washington said.
Officials from Franklin provided a two-page list of the improvements made since its acquisition of Urbana University in 2014. The improvements ranged from relatively small projects like removing tree stumps and repairing the grass soccer field to renovating the university’s physics and biology labs.
The improvements also included relocating the campus’ Johnny Appleseed Museum, developing a Graduate Services Office, ramping up wireless accessibility campus-wide and signing on with a new food service vendor.
Urbana University’s financial situation still isn’t in the black a few years after Franklin’s takeover, Washington said. But along with developing new academic programs and building better ties with local businesses, the improvements are part of a larger plan to drive up enrollment and make the campus a thriving part of the community, he said.
The university has always played an important role in the city and Champaign County, he said. But many people throughout the region still don’t realize Urbana is home to a private university with a history that dates back to 1850.
“Years from now, I would love it if everybody in the community believed it was a college town,” Washington said of Urbana.
Coming off probation
Urbana University had a long history in the city, but it has also faced financial challenges for years. Those problems became critical in 2014, when lean enrollment, a handful of failed business decisions and effects of the Great Recession meant Urbana couldn’t take on more debt to survive. At that time, the university nearly shut down entirely, until Franklin University, based in Columbus, stepped in.
A handful of local banks accepted millions of dollars in losses to wipe the debt clean, allowing the transaction to occur. As part of that deal, Urbana now functions as a division of Franklin but retains its name.
Local leaders have said saving Urbana University was critical because it employs more than 200 staff and faculty members and provides a potential pipeline of skilled workers for local businesses.
A 2017 economic impact study by the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education estimated that Urbana University provided more than $60 million to the economies of Champaign and Logan counties for the 2015 to 2016 school year. That study considered the university’s impacts from operations, student spending in the community and capital investment.
Urbana had been under academic probation since November 2014. But that was wiped away in July last year when Franklin University received approval by the Higher Learning Commission to make Urbana University a branch campus.
Taking the Urbana campus under Franklin’s accreditation was a critical step as Franklin looks to develop new academic programs and provide better service to students, Washington said.
“There’s work to be done here and as we grow our goals are designed to create a sustainable university,” Washington said.
Boosting community ties
Washington said drawing more students to the university also means developing closer ties to alumni, providing more reasons for students to stay on campus and working more closely with local businesses to provide job options for students.
The university hosted its first-ever night football game last fall, an event that drew about 3,500 alumni and other guests to the campus. The university also hosted its spring game at night this year, and there are already plans to host additional night games this fall as one way to make the campus more entertaining for students and to develop better relationships with alumni, he said.
There are some signs that the work is paying dividends, Washington said. He noted the university received about 420 applications for new students last year, but that figure has about doubled to more than 800 applications for the upcoming academic year.
“To offer the programs we want to offer, we have to have a sufficient number of students to support those programs,” Washington said.
Another key, Washington said, is developing closer ties with area businesses. The university has developed a program called UrbanaWORKS, which will provide students with leadership skills while tying educational programs more closely to the needs of local businesses.
Marcia Bailey, economic development coordinator for the Champaign Economic Partnership, said the university is making a more visible effort to work with local companies and determine what training is needed to match current demands. The CEP is the economic development agency for Champaign County.
She said Washington is part of a team developed to address the needs of local businesses. That group recently visited Honeywell Aerospace in Urbana and is scheduled to meet soon with Bundy Baking Solutions, a local manufacturer.
“They are intimately getting involved in the community,” Bailey said of Urbana University’s recent emphasis on local business.
The community is also embracing the campus more than may have been the case in the past, she said. Last year was the first year community members hosted a block party in downtown Urbana to welcome students to the campus at the start of the school year, and a similar event is scheduled for August.
“The university is making certain they’re a part of the community and the community is making certain they’re engaging the university with different events and activities too,” Bailey said.
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After sharing the classified design with Ultramet and asking for a proposal, the engineering team managed to reduce the cost of production by 90 percent. The Department of Defense accepted the proposal and sent the company orders. Cordonnier said Ultra-met has been manufacturing the advanced armor piercing component approximately 16 months. He said he is not certain whether Ultra-met is the exclusive manufacturer.
“I am very proud of the team’s work on the Department of Defense project for advanced armor piercing components,” he said. “We were able to support our fighting men and women of the armed forces with a component that vastly improves the performance of existing ammunition against battlefield threats that are using the most advanced body armor.”
According to Cordonnier, the new ammunition design is an improvement on the old one because Tungsten has minimal environmental impact, unlike depleted uranium.
Ultra-met has 122 employees on three shifts to run the mostly automated process of manufacturing these items, but seeks more employees. Cordonnier said that the company offers full training and that the manufacturing floor is clean and climate controlled.
Ultra-met was founded in Urbana in 1965 and has seen a 900 percent growth in the last 25 years. The company produces about a million pieces a month for use in transportation, aerospace, general machining, oil and gas, mining, and power generation industries, and ships all over the world.
Christopher Selmek can be reached at email@example.com or 937-508-2304
The lab, which was delivered to Marion Technical College in Union County late last year, will be on display throughout much of the day at Triad during the job fair. The project’s primary goal is to provide a mobile training area for manufacturing firms throughout the region, Bailey said. In Champaign County, companies like KTH Parts Industries, Inc., Rittal and Bundy Baking Solutions contributed to the project, Bailey said.
“It’s meant to be shared with those employers for incumbent worker training,” Bailey said.
But it can also be used to give local students hands-on experience to encourage them to take a closer look at careers in the industry.
Technical colleges in Central Ohio submitted a proposal for a state grant several years ago to fund a portion of the project, said Robert Haas, chief strategy officer at MTC. The partners combined that grant and various other funding sources to pay for the lab.
One reason it took several years to get the lab running was manufacturers throughout the region were asked to provide input on the kinds of equipment the lab should offer. Instead of training equipment, it was clear the companies wanted real equipment typically used in a manufacturing environment, he said.
The lab includes a CNC milling machine, six control units at which students can learn to program the mill, room for nine students and an instructor and enough power to allow some electrical training. The training can be customized to a business’ needs.
“They tried to make it as broad as they could to cover different types of industries,” Bailey said. “The Hall company might not do robotic welding but they may have a need for CNC.”
Faculty from MTC will be able to provide the training, or companies with qualified staff can conduct the training on their own. Haas said the goal now is to make businesses more aware of the lab. He estimated it will be used for training about 80 percent of the time with the rest used to promote manufacturing careers for students.
“It’s meant to be an asset that can be used across the state, not just the Marion area,” Haas said.
The lab will be on hand at Triad most of the day on Tuesday. A job fair open to high school seniors in Champaign County will take place from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the high school. A second job fair, open to the general public, will take place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the high school.
The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of jobs and the economy in Clark and Champaign Counties. For this story, the paper previewed a job fair scheduled at Triad High School and explained how a new mobile lab will be used to train local workers.
If you go:
What: Two job fairs at Triad High School
Where: 8099 Brush Lake Roa, Woodstock
What: A job fair open to high school seniors in Champaign County, followed by a separate job fair for area residents.
When: A job fair for local students will take place from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the high school. A second job fair, open to the general public, will take place from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the high school.
Despite that long history near Urbana, Chicago-based Glencoe Capital Management acquired the business last year and consolidated its operations with Cincinnati-based Clearbrook Farms, a fruit-based food manufacturer Glencoe acquired in 2016. Local officials are hoping to find a new buyer for the former Robert Rothschild Farm property quickly and said the site is ideal for several potential uses.
Officials at Glencoe did not return a call seeking comment this week.
The Champaign Economic Partnership is working with Gary Fisher, a commercial real estate agent from Cincinnati, to market the property, said Marcia Bailey, executive director of the CEP. Local realtors are also making contacts with prospective buyers, and the Dayton Development Coalition is also making the listing available, she said.
“It’s food-grade processing, so that’s always a big plus,” Bailey said. “Some of the site selections that come through, they want food-grade manufacturing space. With the sewer line being down there from the city, that’s an extra advantage too.”
Local leaders made a significant investment several years ago to extend a sanitary sewer line to the business to allow for an expansion and keep Robert Rothschild Farm in Champaign County. The city of Urbana agreed to spend $160,000 from the city’s sanitary sewer fund to extend the sewer line to the business. The Champaign County commissioners also applied for a $160,000 Community Development Block Grant to pay for a portion of the project, while the company picked up the remaining $467,000 cost.
That project has paid dividends even though the company’s local operations are shutting down, Bailey said. She said Koenig Equipment, an agricultural equipment dealer has since tapped into the line.
Memorial Health is opening a new $9 million medical center at 1958 E. U.S. 36 and chose that site in part because of access to the sewer line as well, she said.
The Rothschild Farm property could be a good fit for a variety of uses including food manufacturing, vertical farming, craft brewing and other options, Fisher said. The area has a qualified labor force, the site has highway access at U.S. 36 and there’s room for expansion if necessary, he said.
A brochure promoting the site describes the property as a little more than 30 acres with a roughly 46,000 square-foot production facility and an area for retail, a restaurant or meeting space. The brochure also highlight’s Urbana’s access to several key population centers within 300 to 600 miles.
The sale price listed on the brochure is about $2.9 million. Fisher said the site could be ideal for a business like vertical farming, in which produce is grown on trays stacked vertically in an indoor, climate-controlled environment.
“It’s a unique property from a lot of perspectives,” he said. “Its history is unique, and at its root it’s really a food production facility. Under the broader category of industrial properties, those types of facilities are a higher level because they’re food facilities, they’re inspected and they’re built to higher standards because of their unique use handling food. They’re relatively rare compared to your run-of-the-mill industrial building.”
The Springfield News-Sun covers major employers in Clark and Champaign counties, including Navistar and Community Mercy Health Partners.
By the numbers:
30.2 acres — Size of available property
45,792 square feet — Size of food-grade production facility
9,073 square feet — Size of retail, restaurant and meeting space
Source: SVN-Ricore Investment Management, Inc.
“The zoning right now is for manufacturing,” Bailey said. “But we’re looking at whether it would make better sense on the east side to make it more of a mixed use environment because there would be space for retail, offices and manufacturing combined if that was the need.”
Once complete, Bailey said the complicated project will remove a property that was a nuisance to the city and local first responders. Once redeveloped, the goal is to use the property to attract more jobs and investment to the city. The abandoned Q3 site at Miami and Beech streets has been an eyesore in Urbana for years, creating concerns about safety, vandalism and drug use on the property. In 2015, a fire destroyed much of the building.
City officials took control of the property under the conditions that overdue taxes were cleared off the books and funding was secured to perform necessary demolition and clean up contamination at the site. The process to acquire the site and secure the necessary funding was a lengthy process, but once the work was underway, the project moved forward fairly quickly, said Kerry Brugger, director of administration for Urbana.
“The bulk of the demolition, the buildings that are going to come down, for the most part are down,” Brugger said. “They’re working on slab removal, and they’ll finish up and (do) soil remediation that needs to be completed.”
There is work left to do on the existing buildings on the site that will remain there. The city contracted with True Inspection Services, an Urbana-based developer, to clean up and redevelop the site. Other partners included Honeywell, with whom the city contracted to clean soil on the rear west side of the site.
Once the work is complete, the city will seek a Covenant Not to Sue from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. That designation will show the site is cleaned up and in good condition, a key to allowing the city to eventually transfer the property.
True Inspection Services will initially take over part of the property once the work is complete and work with the CEP to find candidates to occupy the site. The company is also renovating the remaining buildings for office space or warehouse space by next year.
“We anticipate the cleanup and remediation part of the project should be done in the next eight weeks,” said Joe Timm, vice president for True Inspection Services.
There are prospective tenants for the property, Timm said, but he declined to disclose them because the project is still months from completion. He said the company had previous experience renovating the former Buckles Motors dealership and converting it to office space and warehousing. Finishing the Q3 project will provide several benefits to the city, he said.
“It will add some jobs to the community and increase the tax base,” Timm said. “It will definitely be good for the community, along with getting rid of an eyesore.”