Boston Business Journal
As he drives through downtown Lowell, Marty Meehan points with excitement at the Lowell District courthouse, a building he has his eyes on to house UMass Lowell’s art department.
No matter that the state courthouse is still bustling with judicial proceedings.
“There’s parking for it, too,” Meehan said. “It would be fabulous.”
This isn’t the first time that the former congressman has had his eyes on a property in his hometown, and it certainly won’t be the last. Since Meehan joined UMass Lowell as its chancellor in mid-2007, he has presided over a massive expansion of the school, with nearly $600 million in capital projects that have been completed or set into motion — representing more than a dozen new construction projects, acquisitions and renovations. The list includes UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Center, a 6,500-seat arena acquired in 2010 from the city that is now generating more than $3 million in annual revenue for the university.
UMass Lowell’s operating budget rose by more than 50 percent, and its student enrollment grew 40 percent to roughly 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students, since Meehan took over. He has used grants, donations and private partnerships to help build this empire. But most significantly, Meehan has used $160 million in new debt, betting that an array of new facilities will pay off for the school down the road. UMass Lowell now reports about $250 million in debt, up from $90 million in 2007.
The new construction includes a $40 million health and social sciences building that opened in April and houses, among others, UMass Lowell’s burgeoning nursing department. There also is a new parking garage on the school’s south campus and student housing on the east campus. Work has begun on the $95 million University Crossing student services complex, at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital that UMass Lowell bought for $6.3 million in 2011.
Across the Merrimack River, the $80 million Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center was completed last year for the school’s plastics research and product design, nanomanufacturing and biomaterials development work. To people like Lowell Mayor Patrick Murphy, it’s projects like that 84,000-square-foot center that exemplify UMass Lowell’s focus on technology, a focus that is creating job opportunities for the city.
“We’re able to tap into the research going on (at UMass Lowell) and to be able to retain some of the talent,” Murphy said. “As the reputation of the university rises, so will the attraction (to) all kinds of different companies that are really seeking talented people.”
With the building boom has come new levels of debt. This fiscal year, UMass Lowell has a debt load that’s equal to 4.6 percent of its operating budget, up from 2.9 percent when Meehan joined the school. UMass Lowell is paying $16.9 million in debt service payments in the current fiscal year, a $3.6 million increase from the previous year. Its debt load percentage puts it in the middle of the pack in the UMass system.
Meehan is hardly done yet: Other projects on the horizon include a new business school building, as well as a science and engineering building renovation.
UMass Lowell has received $150 million from a state-backed higher education bond bill in 2008, as well as $10 million from a 2008 life sciences bill for the Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center. The campus is also repaying $240 million in bond funds, initially issued by the UMass Building Authority, with revenue from student tuition and fees, and campus fundraising initiatives.
Since 2007, the campus has raised more than $85 million in private gifts and pledges and the endowment has increased to $60 million from $37 million.
“If you can get a donor to give you some money, that building gets built faster,” said Robert Caret, president of the UMass system. “Lowell has been just about as aggressive if not the most aggressive of the five (UMass) campuses in getting private money.”
Though its growth is ambitious, UMass Lowell has not outpaced UMass Amherst in capital projects or funding. That campus in western Massachusetts has roughly $700 million in debt. Such spending is expected at the flagship UMass campus, Meehan said. UMass Lowell has had to jump a higher hurdle in demonstrating that it has the revenue stream to pay debt service on UMass bonds, he said.
Revenue at UMass Lowell is expected to be $326 million this year, up 8 percent from the previous school year. UMass Lowell began to run an operating deficit, which was $3 million last year and this year is projected at $5 million. (The school has a $28 million reserves fund to help cover any deficits.)
Meehan’s political background has certainly played a key role in this UMass growth spurt. One good example is the university’s $15 million purchase of a former Doubletree hotel in 2009, a building now used by the university for an inn, conference center and dorms.
Meehan knew from some meetings he had attended early in his political career that more than 300 parking spots in an adjacent city-owned parking garage are deeded to the hotel property – a fact, he said, that most city officials did not realize. The parking made the hotel even more valuable to UMass Lowell, which has since taken those parking spots exclusively for its own use, Meehan said. Meehan knows that part of the university’s success and ability to raise revenue is how it’s perceived by the public. To that end, he looks for every opportunity to market the UMass Lowell brand —right down to the new brilliant blue UMass Lowell signs, paid for by federal funds, that line the city’s downtown streets. “There’s no doubt that political friendships can help,” said James Karam, the previous chairman of the UMass board of trustees. “But I think it’s really political skills and those are applicable to any industry. Change ‘political skills’ to ‘people skills.’ He’s got the ability to galvanize people.”
But Meehan is aware that his ambition also has the potential to turn people off. He says his aggressive plans have been termed by some locals as “Martyville.”
Kendall Wallace, chairman of the company that publishes the Lowell Sun, says he coined the “Martyville” phrase, and it was not meant as a slight. The construction jobs helped the city make it through during the recession, Wallace said, and the extra students brought more traffic to the downtown area. “People are stunned by what has happened,” Wallace said.