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Mt. Hood CC tries, again, for passage of bond measure

PORTLAND — Mt. Hood Community College celebrated its 50th anniversary Tuesday, with cake and refreshments inside the Gresham campus student union.

It was a muted event that drew a rotating crowd of about 70 people over the course of an hour and a half, and was highlighted by a speech from President Debra Derr.

Administration officials hope the real party is May 17.

Mt. Hood will go to the ballot next month for the fifth time in 21 years to ask for money from homeowners within its voting district. Voters last approved a bond measure for the school in 1974.

This time, school officials are proposing a $125 million general obligation bond, the product of an 18-month community listening tour. If approved, the bond would cost homeowners about $31 annually per $100,000 of assessed value.

This time, campus leaders believe they can win.

If approved, it would be the second largest bond to benefit a community college in state history. In 2008, Portland voters passed a $374 million bond for Portland Community College. Chemeketa Community College's 2008 bond for $92 million is next closest.

Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, said the colleges along the Interstate 5 corridor, in particular, need to be updated.

"Sometimes it costs money to be flexible and adapt," she said. "It really is about the future."

Mt. Hood's bond would pay for an applied technology center, a new building at Maywood Park, seismic retrofits, additional security measures and the paying down of $27 million in debt accrued in the past 15 years.

An $8 million state bond approved in 2013 is also contingent on MHCC's bond.

"That bond is very, very important," Derr said of the state money.

Campaign cash is started to pour into the organizing committee backing the measure, with more than $146,000 in contributions thus far from Nike, construction firms and key vendors.

MHCC is the fourth-largest community college in Oregon, according to figures from the end of fall term. Only Portland, Chemeketa and Lane community colleges had more full-time students enrolled.

The school's reach is considerable. Some 300,000 people live in MHCC's service district, which stretches from Portland International Airport to Cascade Locks.

Much of the sprawling 212-acre school, built on former strawberry fields, looks as if it were dropped out of post-World War II-era Eastern Europe. The buildings all bear the same dull, cinderblock façade.

When approaching the bond, MHCC asked residents what they wanted from the school in 2020.

At meetings in Sandy, Cascade Locks and elsewhere, Derr said community members pushed for more programs that "improve the quality of our life." Community members and business owners told MHCC they want expanded programs that train more automotive technicians, more welders, more skilled workers to meet their needs.

Automotive technology and advanced manufacturing are some of the school's most-sought after programs both from business owners and students, and they're housed for now in a squatty, fortress-like building with few windows. "If there was a tornado, that's the building I would want to be in," Derr said.

The building has narrow hallways that don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, confined workspaces and not enough storage. The new proposed 90,000-square-foot, $28 million building will be one-third larger.

Another $23 million in bond proceeds would pay for the new Maywood campus building. The 60,000-square-foot facility would be nearly double the current building, which was constructed in 1922. Jones said that money would help make the branch a full-service campus, with counseling and other services that are now available only in Gresham.

Perhaps the most stinging bond failure occurred in 2002. In the May primary, voters narrowly approved a $68.4 million plan, but it was a double majority election. MHCC needed 50 percent of voters to turn out, just 41 percent did.

"It was heartbreaking," Derr said.

So the bond went on to the November ballot. Voters crushed it.

"They thought we were actually asking for more money," Jones said.

In the years after, the school issued a series of full faith and credit bonds to pay for a slew of structural problems. "Since we haven't been able to pass bonds, we've had to take on debt to take care of some of our problems," Jones said.

Retiring the school's $27 million in debt would also free up $2.5 million per year in debt service payments.

School officials said that could help add more services for students with that money.

Derr, who signed a three-year contract in 2013, said it was "very clear" when she was hired that a bond was a top priority.

"This college cannot afford to wait 10 years to go back out, so we would go back out and we would talk to them again." If the bond goes down, Derr said she would talk to the board about "going back out again" next year.

If the bond is approved, MHCC hopes to open the first building by the summer 2019.