An oversized construction barrier looms over the campus of Cal State Bakersfield, created by a CSUB art major for a lot that soon will be home to a new art building.

Installed last month, the 20-foot-tall orange and white sculpture is a fitting symbol for local higher education. The number of groundbreaking ceremonies and ribbon cuttings at Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield is downright dizzying these days.

In April alone, CSUB opened a 5,000-square-foot engineering complex; broke ground on a 9,000-square-foot, $19 million arts building; and opened the Kegley Center for Student Success, a 1,500-square-foot facility with space for workshops, tutoring, study sessions and meetings. It was remodeled at a cost of about $200,000.

A month later, the university announced a new dormitory complex of three four-story buildings. The $41.3 million residential project will have rooms for 500 students, as well as study rooms, lounges, classrooms, a game room and a multi-purpose room.

And then there's BC's $14.6 million renovation of its 30,290-square-foot Performing Arts Building, announced in February.

The infrastructure investments have implications far beyond education.

"I'm pleased that they're doing all that," said Bakersfield City Councilman Harold Hanson. "I think it does wonders for the city to have cultural opportunities and opportunities for businesses to come here and be able to recruit employees."

Some of the impetus for the work is that the economy is slowly improving, and projects that were put on hold during the recession simply couldn't wait anymore, said BC spokeswoman Amber Chiang.

Built in 1956, BC's performing arts building is outdated, in disrepair and long overdue for renovation, she said.

"We haven't had any classes in that building for at least two years," Chiang said. "It took away the theaters we used for theater and music. We did our last performance in front of the gym in a grassy area."

What's remarkable about all the construction is that it's happening at a time when publicly funded colleges and universities are reeling from years of state budget cuts. All but two states (North Dakota and Wyoming) are spending less per student on higher education than before the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Things are looking up as the economy improves, however, and the 2013-14 state budget is expected to give the state university and community college systems a big boost.

In the absence of a reliable state funding stream, Kern's public colleges and universities are getting creative.

The BC project is all public money. The college will use state capital outlay funds and proceeds from a local bond measure, community college capital bond Measure G.

CSUB has public money coming in, too, some of which it's spending on seismic upgrades to existing buildings. But it's paying for a lot of the new construction by combining state money with grants, donations and clever debt structuring.

"We've been making progress in spite of our particular state budget situation because we've taken a different approach to all of this," said CSUB President Horace Mitchell. "We've become entrepreneurial."

The two-building engineering complex, for instance, was paid for with a U.S. Department of Education grant of $870,000 a year annually for five years. Plus, Chevron is in talks with the university about a gift to "enhance" the complex, a spokesman for the company confirmed. He declined to offer specifics.

The Kegley Center remodeling was fully covered by a donation from Jacquelyn Kegley, chair of the university's Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Her $200,000 donation was the largest gift from a faculty member in the university's history.

The dorm project is being funded through CSU systemwide revenue bonds, housing reserve program contributions of $500,000 and an $8 million loan from the Affordable Student Housing Revolving Fund. That's a state fund that limits interest rates to keep the cost of living on campuses reasonable.

The university plans to repay the debt on the project with student rent.

CSUB's strategy is typical of what a lot of schools around the country have been doing since the recession, said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"Institutions are simply having to be more innovative in how they go about financing these kinds of improvements," Hurley said. "They're all more engaged in public-private partnerships, especially for dormitories. All college presidents are spending a lot more time on raising private dollars."

It's good to see building on local campuses because it improves the area's quality of life to have a thriving cultural scene, and that, in turn, helps economic development, said Richard Chapman, executive director of the Kern County Economic Development Corporation.

He teaches a class at CSUB, and when he asks students what they plan to do after graduation, most say they want to leave the area for a bigger city with more amenities.

"A strong university with cultural attractions and dormitories on campus is a magnet for retail and restaurant development," Chapman said. "It contributes to that 24-hour entertainment lifestyle that you don't see if it's a commuter school, and when corporate relocation people come here to scout possible sites for new businesses, quality of life and amenities are some of the things they look for."

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