College of the Desert (COD) President Martha Garcia confirmed Wednesday morning there will be a campus built in Palm Springs, but she stopped short of being able to provide details, claiming further studies are needed.
“We are going to move forward,” she told a gathering of area business and community leaders at the Hyatt Palm Springs. “There will be a Palm Springs campus site built.”
That announcement drew applause from the audience, but also skepticism due to the fact Garcia, who was appointed to the role in August, has so far not responded to questions from city leaders and others about what, exactly, would happen to 29 acres COD purchased off Tahquitz Canyon Way with the intent of building a satellite campus.
During a question and answer session that followed her presentation to the Desert Roundtable, audience members asked Garcia for specifics about COD’s Palm Springs plans. They were seeking confirmation that the project, as touted during a 2016 campaign to approve the sale of nearly $600 million in bonds, would move forward as conceived. They also wanted to know what, exactly, COD had done to date after purchasing the property for $22 million.
“There’s a PR problem or some other problem going on here,” said J.R. Roberts, a former Palm Springs City Councilmember and current planning commissioner. “The community came together and fully embraced this project. We’re writing big checks every year, but we need specifics.
“There’s a major credibility problem with COD in this valley that has never existed before.”
Roberts was referring to reports in The Post last week that some current and former faculty at the college believe the college is being used as “a pawn or a device to further the political interest of some of the elected officials in the Coachella Valley.”
Garcia apologized for not being more communicative, and promised full transparency moving forward. Still, she said any specifics will have to wait. She said a “feasibility study” is needed to determine exactly what the cost to build the campus in Palm Springs would be prior to sending any architectural plans to the state for approval.
“It will be built where the old mall is at,” Garcia confirmed. “Will it be to the same size and scale as was previously shown? That I cannot promise.”
At issue for Garcia and others in leadership at COD, she said, is the need to examine all capital projects undertaken by the school. Yes, the money was approved by voters for the Palm Springs campus and other projects, she said, but it would not be prudent to move forward with any of them without doing studies on actual costs before showing renderings. A planned automotive campus in Cathedral City, which was cancelled to the surprise of city leaders there, was found to cost 70 percent more than originally thought, she said.
“I understand it’s disappointing,” she said of the news that the Cathedral City project was cancelled in the planned location. “But the elevation of that site increased the costs 70 percent. I’m responsible for the dollars you’ve entrusted us with. I didn’t feel that it should be built at that site.”
Garcia was able to confirm that educational programs discussed for the Palm Springs campus, including opportunities for students to study architecture, would be included in any project built here. Details of those plans will not be known, however, until she involves others in the discussions.
“Yes, the dream is gorgeous,” she said of campus renderings that have been produced so far. “But there are a lot of additional details needed.”
“There is an opportunity for us to rethink what additional features we will have here,” she added. “In doing the feasibility study we will be including faculty at a much greater level.”
Garcia also promised to make all documentation regarding a campus in the city available to Palm Springs elected officials and staff. She said she would try to make that happen prior to Thursday, when the City Council is scheduled to consider authorizing up to $500,000 to pay an outside legal firm, “In order for the city to fully engage with COD and the community in discussions about the West End Campus.”
“It is vital that we collaborate, that we talk,” she told the audience Wednesday morning. “Yes, I’m busy. But I’m open to talk to anyone.”