Somerset City Council has officially agreed to hand the reins of former Cundiff Square property over to the University of Somerset – at least for 30 years.
The lease was passed 10-1, with Councillor Amanda Bullock being the lone no vote. Jerry Girdler did not attend the meeting.
A 30-year lease of the property means the proposed university would make payments throughout that time. At the end of the lease, the university would own the property.
In the end, the university’s board of directors will pay $1.4 million for the property.
The city of Somerest bought the property last year for $1 million, and has paid for the demolition of the buildings on it, with all expenses incurred being just over $1.3 million.
Somerset Mayor Alan Keck addressed questions on whether the city should have paid for some of the initial costs of cleaning up the property by saying, “What I’ve said from the beginning of the university is that if the university were to locate at Cundiff Square that the city of Somerset would be made whole. And by whole I mean all costs incurred – purchase price, demolition costs, interest expense, any engineering that was spent – would get reimbursed.”
Some of those questions were raised by Somerset resident Beka Burton, who questioned why the lease was being overseen by Mayor Keck, who is also the chairman of the university's board.
“I ask that the city council consider that no one that is directly or indirectly involved with the university be allowed to decide the final lease or sale price for the property,” she said while addressing city council.
Keck responded that he has ben very public about being involved in the university, and has not hid the fact that he represents both the university and city government as the Mayor.
Burton also brought up her concerns about how the funds raised by the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district would be used. The downtown TIF encompasses the property where the university is set to be built.
Part of her concerns may have led to a situation involving someone in a state “position of power” which Burton said she took to be a threat to her job at the Kentucky Cabinet of Economic Development.
As part of her position, Burtons said she has worked with many counties to establish TIF districts, and in seeking information she asked someone involved who would be in charge of deciding what projects the TIF funds would be allocated to.
“In less than one hour, I received a call from someone in a position of power at the state level, telling me my job was not in jeopardy by any means, but I did need to be extremely careful because TIF districts are extremely political, and I should back off asking questions about my local TIF,” she said.
Keck said that neither he nor anyone in his office had any connection with that phone call.
“I’m sorry that that happened. I have no knowledge of that,” Keck said.
He went on to say, however, that he agreed that no one associated with the university should have a voice in deciding where the TIF funds go.
“I make that commitment to you. The council would have to approve those. Naturally, I’m the mayor, I’m involved in these discussions, so I can’t recuse myself completely, but I won’t have a vote in where those TIF funds go. I think that’s a good idea.”
Other citizens spoke at the meeting in favor of bringing the four-year university to life.
Alison Pyles, a resident of the county, said she has long been concerned about not being in a financial position to give her daughter the education she deserves. “The idea of having a four-year university in my back yard where my daughter could avoid the cost of housing … is something that means the world to me,” she said.
Somerset resident Brenda Pryor said her thoughts were about keeping young people here instead of seeing them move away for opportunities.
Pryor said she had moved into the Somerset area with her children from the Chicago area, and the only thing Somerset was missing in her eyes was arts programs at both the high school and state level.
One of her daughters is currently attending the University of Kentucky, but Pryor said she would have loved to have stayed closer to home.
“My 12-year-old, I’d love for him to be able to be here, to be able to go to university, to be able to support our local, instead of always having to support outside of Somerset. So I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Pryor said.
Somerset resident David Townsend said he was neither for nor against the idea of the university, but as an educator himself, he knows that most private universities are “unaffordable for the average student.”
He said that private schools could cost upwards of $40,000, and that many who are selected to attend on athletic scholarships still go into debt through loans.
Townsend also pointed out that it would take a few years, three to five at least, before the university would be an accredited school. He said he wanted it made clear to students that their education would not be coming from an accredited institution at first.