By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Former state Rep. Jerry Chang says his primary focus this year will be to obtain $33 million from the Legislature to fund a building for the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Pharmacy.
Chang, who is settling in as UHH’s new director of University Relations after the late-December retirement of 21-year veteran Gerald DeMello, says his new duties are a natural progression after spending 24 years in the Legislature “pushing for expanded UH-Hilo programs and capital improvement funding,” he said.
The College of Pharmacy building has already received backing from powerful allies, like Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who included the funding in his administration’s budget package as the No. 1 priority for all University System of Hawaii construction projects.
Even so, Chang seemed reticent Monday to jinx the project’s chances, saying that nothing was in the bag, and it was still going to take plenty of hard work, and a little luck, to bring the funding home.
“We’ve already been doing a lot of legwork in the past,” said Chang, who stepped into his new role on Jan. 11 after representing East Hawaii in the state House for 24 years. “We’ve requested this funding before, but because of budget shortfalls, we haven’t been able to fund it the last two sessions. We are trying again, and this time we have the support of the governor, the Board of Regents — it’s one of their priorities — and our Big Island delegation.”
He added that Hawaii Island legislators serving in leadership roles, including state Sens. Russell Ruderman and Gil Kahele on the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, could also help to swing things the college’s way.
“Sen. Kahele’s been pushing it,” he said. “He said it’s his No. 1 priority. As well as Clift Tsuji, Mark Nakashima and Richard Onishi. Hopefully, we can get the other Big Island legislators behind it.”
The request is for $33 million to construct Phase I — the first floor — of the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Building. An additional $5 million would be required for the project, which would be obtained through revenue bonds covered by student tuition. A second phase could be built later, requiring an additional $17 million.
The price tag on the overall project has dropped over the years as the campus has been confronted with a state Legislature battling large budget shortfalls. Initial plans called for a $120 million building.
The project is “shovel ready,” Chang said, with the building’s $5.5 million design phase having been completed in the spring of 2011.
“It’s ready to go,” he said.
College of Pharmacy Dean John Pezzuto agrees.
In a posting last month on UHH’s website, Pezzuto made a case for now being the time for the construction to begin.
“We have the site. It is shovel ready. It’s ready to go, so as soon as we secure the funding, we can have a groundbreaking and secure the future of the college, secure the future of pharmacy in the state, and really help us do what we have the capability of doing,” he said.
Designed by Hilo-born architect Rob Iopa and his firm, WCIT Architecture, the Hawaiian-themed structure takes many of its cues from the Big Island’s natural surroundings. WCIT also designed the campus’ award-winning College of Hawaiian Language building, which is currently nearing completion.
The facility would sit on about 4.5 acres at the intersection of Komohana and Nowelo streets, according to design plans. The first phase would consist of a total of about 120,000 square feet comprised of two separate buildings. One building would contain all the classrooms, students services, offices, restrooms, study rooms, lecture halls, labs, a faculty lounge, and other rooms, while the second structure, known as the “Vivarium” would be an enclosed area for keeping and raising plants for research. It would also include labs and offices.
The College of Pharmacy, the only school of its kind within the Pacific region, has had to operate out of a number of locations spread across the UHH campus since its inception in August 2007.
Other goals Chang will undertake at UHH include the expansion of programs in general engineering, physical therapy and aviation training, he said.
“We will continue our efforts in recruitment, as well as expand community, government, faculty, student and alumni outreach,” he said.
Chang acknowledged that the fractured nature of the legislative process, with various committees each needing to sign off on a proposal before it can move forward, could make it difficult for him to meet with success at every turn. But, he added, ultimately his efforts could benefit the whole island, and that gives him the incentive he needs to keep working.
“The entire community will benefit from the achievement of these goals,” he said, “and I feel fortunate and honored to be a part of the process.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.