USM’s future on coast uncertain

Published 5:43 pm Thursday, December 7, 2006

Members of the state College Board have worked for months to find about 100 acres of property for another university campus, a search that has some coast leaders wondering if the University of Southern Mississippi’s Long Beach campus is in jeopardy.

The board said in June it plans to rebuild the Long Beach campus. However, members also said they were looking for 125-150 acres of land to build an additional campus to handle the population growth expected on the coast.

Since the decision about Long Beach was announced, rumors have been rampant about where the land would be and whether it would be donated or purchased. There also has been speculation about whether the campus would belong to USM or if several universities would participate and offer classes and degrees under a “university center” concept.

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Rep. Diane Peranich, D-DeLisle, said she would be opposed to building a new campus at the expense of Gulf Park in Long Beach.

“Educational opportunities on the coast would be of benefit to all of us, and that was our goal all along in trying to get a four-year university on the coast,” she said. “There is no way that this state, at this point in time and with the other universities, would consider a whole new, multimillion-dollar complex until we had in fact completed the mission that we have.

“If in fact there is anyone thinking that this additional campus would come at the expense of the existing campus, they’re going to have to come through me, not around me,” she said.

The College Board might vote at its Jan. 17 meeting to choose a piece of property for another campus for USM, education officials said this week.

Last month, the board said it would like to have the property chosen by the time the legislative session begins Jan. 2, but that probably won’t happen, said Tom Meredith, state commissioner of higher education.

“I think it may be difficult to have a land decision in place by the time the Legislature begins, but I hope the board is in a position to make a decision in January,” he said.

Meredith said he couldn’t say yet how many pieces of property the board is looking at or where they are, but he reiterated the commitment to USM.

“The board made a commitment to the Long Beach campus, and there has been no discussion otherwise since then,” he said, adding the additional campus also would be run by USM.

“Our board has been consistent, and I’ve been consistent in saying how it’s going to operate,” Meredith said. “It will be a USM campus. Period. Everyone who tries to create rumors about all these other things are not listening.”

Still, some Coast legislators and Long Beach officials are wondering how the College Board intends to pay for a new campus with education dollars throughout the state already stretched thin.

Years ago, the Legislature appropriated money to build a library, a multipurpose building and a math and science building at Gulf Park. The $7 million math and science building is the only one that hasn’t been constructed.

The city of Long Beach and Harrison County also gave money for the buildings, and the city sold some land to the university so it could expand.

Peranich and other legislators said they want to see Gulf Park fully operational again before the College Board begins planning another campus.

City officials agree.

“Long Beach doesn’t have a lot of money, but this community made a commitment to USM,” Alderman Richard Bennett said. “I don’t believe they will keep it as a full campus. I don’t think they can afford to do it.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to people like Diane Peranich and Jim Simpson who worked so hard to make this a four-year campus,” he added. “And they’ve had no formal talks with Long Beach about what’s going on here. All we’re hearing is speculation. With the commitment we’ve made to USM, the least they could have done was gotten some input from us.”

Meredith said he and the board just want to make sure they are making the right decision for everyone involved and that they will talk to legislators before deciding anything.

“This is a 100-year decision,” he said. “It’s a big decision because it’s so critical to the future of the coast. The board understands the gravity of things, and they want to do it right.”