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Back to school for bill pushing partnerships

Public-private model may get a second chance on campuses

A program that allows public colleges in New Jersey to pursue private developments on campus would be extended for 18 months under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

A program that allows public colleges in New Jersey to pursue private developments on campus would be extended for 18 months under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

The Higher Education Public-Private Partnership Program was set to expire Feb. 1, but a bill would allow the program to continue into 2013.

The original program had been opposed by the Building Contractors Association of New Jersey, whose members support publicly bid contracts through requests for proposals. Bill sponsor Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) said the 18-month extension met concerns raised by association officials, who declined to comment for this article.

The extension is supported by businesses pursuing the partnerships. They include the PRC Group, of West Long Branch, which is planning the $50 million Campus Town mixed-used project at The College of New Jersey.

“If it weren’t for this type of program, these projects wouldn’t happen,” said Greg Lentine, PRC Group vice president of sales and marketing.

Lentine said the public-private partnerships allow private developers to fill a void left by state budget constraints, which have affected public colleges and universities.

“The state colleges had funding cuts just like everyone else. They have to pay attention to budgets,” Lentine said.

Lentine said while the program doesn’t require public bidding, the developer went through a competitive process when it was selected by TCNJ. He added that allowing a private company to assume the risk of financing a campus project benefits the college, since “there’s just no money right now in the state” for college projects.

PRC aims to complete the TCNJ project by the end of 2013, he said.

The latest public-private partnership, a $23 million project to add solar panels at Ramapo College of New Jersey, was approved Jan. 17.

“There will be a significant amount of jobs and money coming into the state and staying in the state,” said Mitchell Cohen, a partner in and general counsel to project developer National Energy Partners, of Mount Laurel.

The 4-megawatt project would include solar panels on rooftops, over parking spots and mounted on the ground.

Cohen said he understood the concerns of the Building Contractors Association, but he said the public-private partnerships offered unique advantages.

“An RFP process can be a long, drawn-out type of process, and can delay the project getting into the ground,” Cohen said. “It really, in my mind, is something that you need to look at the type of industry that you’re looking at.”

Cohen said state and federal incentive programs for solar power have been expiring, so projects must be completed quickly to benefit from existing incentives.

Lesniak said uncertainty over the program is slowing plans for some projects.

“We really have to get this through,” Lesniak said at a Jan. 23 hearing for the bill. “It’s holding up some very important infrastructure projects at our state institutions.”

Lesniak said opposition from the building contractors group blocked a similar bill in the Assembly in 2011, which did not include the 18-month phase-out.

“They’ve been against this bill since the get-go, so I struck this compromise,” he said.

The bill was backed by the New Jersey Association of Colleges & Universities.

“We fully support it,” said Barbara Berreski, a government and legal affairs official for the association. “This is a very important bill for our colleges and universities. It provides them infrastructure assistance that they need right now.”

New Jersey Economic Development Authority officials have approved three projects: Two at Montclair State University — The Heights, a residential development, and a combined heat and power plant — and the solar panels at Ramapo. Along with the TCNJ project, Kean University also is planning a public-private partnership. Both TCNJ and Kean were working to submit applications to EDA by Feb. 1.

 

E-mail to:  akitchenman@njbiz.com
On Twitter:  @Kitchenman

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