EAST CHICAGO | As East Chicago works to transform the North Harbor, Mayor Anthony Copeland hopes a significant anchor point of the redevelopment is creation of a university.
Copeland used Field Elementary School, which the city bought from the School City of East Chicago intending to turn it into the university, as the backdrop of his State of the City address.
In the speech, Copeland cited the City University project as a way to make education more accessible to residents.
The aim is to create a concept similar to Portage’s University Center, where a number of universities offer classes under one roof.
The push for the university comes as Copeland said local industry leaders have advised they expect turnover of at least half their workforce in the coming years.
“They have been telling us if we get our act together and we prepare our children coming out of high school with a minimum of an associate degree tied into a tech field and especially programs they will design with us … they can assure us they can absorb as many as we can produce,” Copeland said. “That’s what spurred the idea of putting this university there.”
The East Chicago Redevelopment Commission is seeking proposals from interested institutions, and Copeland said at least four universities already have visited the site, including Ivy Tech Community College and Indianapolis-based Martin University.
Copeland said he doesn’t perceive the creation of a university as competition to East Chicago’s campus of Ivy Tech Community College, which is about two miles away from Field School.
“I tell people look at our sister city of South Bend,” Copeland said. “They have seven or eight colleges there, and they all work off each other.”
Ivy Tech Community College Chancellor Thomas Coley said the school is considering submitting a request to offer classes at the building, and he has met with Copeland on his vision.
"I commend the mayor," Coley said. "He's really trying to look forward to try to improve educational training opportunities in East Chicago ... so from that standpoint, I think it's a good idea."
Yet, Copeland’s plan to use Field School for the university is facing criticism from the School City of East Chicago board, which passed a resolution decrying the former appointed board’s decision to sell the school to the city for $1. The decision was made less than a month before the new School Board, which is now elected and seats more members, took office.
Currently, the Field building is used as an alternative school and serves a range of 80 to 100 students, East Chicago School Board President Jesse Gomez said.
Gomez, a former East Chicago city councilman, said with the city improving the housing stock in the North Harbor, a future need exists for an elementary school. Gomez also takes issue with the $1 purchase price, arguing the building and its contents are worth at least $14 million.
“I think (Copeland’s) argument falls short that the better use of the facility is for a college,” Gomez said. “The college could have been built on another property. To turn an elementary school into a college to me is asking the Yankees to move to Block Stadium.”
Gomez said he plans to speak with city administrators on transferring the building back to the district. If those talks are unsuccessful, Gomez said the School Board is prepared to proceed with litigation.
Copeland said there is precedent for the transaction that occurred between the school district and the city. In the 1990s, School Board members agreed to transfer the former De La Garza Career Center to Ivy Tech for $1, he said.
He said legal counsel for the city and the School Board researched the matter extensively before transferring the deed of the property.
Copeland said the cost to the city would depend on the universities chosen to fill the facility. A tentative date for the East Chicago Redevelopment Commission to award the proposals is in June.
Portage’s facility cost $6.1 million, but unlike East Chicago, the 32,000-square-foot building is new construction. Classes started in earnest this year at the Portage site, but the concept of a higher learning center in the city dates back to the 1990s, Portage Director of Public Works A.J. Monroe said.
“It’s an investment in education in Portage,” Monroe said. “I think we look at it as an opportunity to bring people to our downtown, which in turn provides more traffic – more foot traffic and vehicular traffic.”