Deficit likely means end of Bruno Ursuline campus
But glimmer of hope if usage improves soon
An annual operating deficit estimated at about $100,000 has prompted the U of S to pull the plug on the Bruno Ursuline Campus, but that doesn't necessarily mean the doors will be locked just yet.
At its meeting June 26, the Board of Governors decided not to exercise the option contained in the five-year lease agreement with the Ursuline Sisters to purchase the 60,000-square-foot education and conference centre for $1. According to the original business plan drawn up at the time of the lease signing in late 1999, the campus operation in Bruno, 90 km east of Saskatoon, should "have been at the break-even point now for all costs of operating the facility," said Tony Whitworth, Vice-President Finance and Resources. "But that business plan hasn't materialized and the projected annual loss on operations is $100,000. The question is whether that amount of money should be spent in Bruno or here on campus."
But all hope is not lost according to both Whitworth and the man responsible for programming at the facility. Whitworth said the University "still has the next six months to see if things can turn around. Unfortunately, if it's left unused, the only real option is demolition of the property and if you've ever been out there, it's a fine building." The Board decision might stimulate other groups into increasing their use of the facility or developing partnerships to support the operation, he said, now that they realize "the University's pockets aren't as deep as they originally thought".
Whitworth added that the University is "still open to some subsidy, perhaps in the order of $20,000 per year" but time is of the essence - "We're going to be out of there as soon as possible."
Bruce Hobin, the Extension Division's Bruno program manager, said while he doesn't disagree the right decision was made by the Board, he plans to spend the summer trying to drum up the clients necessary to reduce the annual deficit to that $20,000 target.
"This year (July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004) is a make or break year, but is $20,000 a realistic goal? I think we have a better than 50-50 chance. I'm confident, but I need to knock on a few more doors in the next eight weeks. We need to get our ducks in a row."
Faced with producing a revised business plan by the end of August, Hobin will concentrate his efforts on working with other groups and organizations, not so much in partnership - because there would be no assumed liability, he said - but co-operatively, to maximize use of the facility. One example he gave involves contact with the town of Bruno and the local Lions Club to discuss converting the local arena to artificial ice. This would open the campus to organizations interested in summer hockey camps, "but obviously a number of things have to happen locally first".
There is also work being done with the Saskatchewan 4-H Council and the University's Junior Master Gardener Program to establish a summer camp. Hobin pointed out summer use of the campus is more profitable than winter because there are no heating costs.
But Bruno Ursuline must still compete with other facilities offering less spartan accommodations, said Hobin, referring to the lack of private bathrooms. The facility, situated on 65 acres in the town of Bruno, contains a general purpose hall, gymnasium, 12 classrooms, 44 single bedrooms, 56 beds in dormitories and a large dining room.
Hobin admits the original business plan contained a couple of critical flaws that hampered the University's ability to successfully launch the operation. The first was an underestimation of start-up costs which included everything from building upgrades to the purchase of sheets and pillows. The second was a user fee that was too high, making Bruno uncompetitive with other facilities like St. Peter's in Muenster. He pointed out that many potential users are non-profit, community groups with limited funding.
"By the end of the third year, the business plan called for a modest surplus but we're nowhere near that."
Whitworth noted that the maintenance, upkeep and utility costs for a building the size and age of the Bruno facility are high, requiring "a really high activity level to support the building". His big regret is that it's not located closer to Saskatoon. If it were, "it would solve a lot of our space problems on campus".
Aware that any decision about the future of the Bruno campus will have an impact on the town of 650 people, Whitworth, U of S President Peter MacKinnon and others held a public meeting in Bruno in early February to discuss the situation. Expecting 50-70 people to attend, Whitworth said he was taken aback when some 200-300 showed up to hear an explanation of the options facing the University.
Hobin said ending operations on the campus will directly affect about 10 people who occupy both full- and part-time positions. The town itself would feel an economic impact in a couple of sectors with the loss of local purchasing of supplies and with a reduced clientele at Bruno's pub and restaurant.
There would also be a cultural loss to the community, he said, with local people no longer able to enjoy events and activities put on by campus user groups like Dance Saskatchewan which has annual performances during its Summer Steps program. Closing the campus would also see an end to the Saskatchewan Arts Board-sponsored Artist-in-Residence program.
Although he is optimistic about the short-term future of the Bruno Ursuline Campus, Hobin said he is not taking any bookings for the facility beyond April 30, 2004.