ELKO — The University of Nevada, Reno is planning to shut down the UNR Fire Science Academy east of Carlin, laying off 28 people, and the decision is a blow to both Elko and Carlin.
“It is my decision to go to the Board of Regents to propose the closure. The actual decision will be with the Board of Regents,” UNR President Marc Johnson said Monday.
“The reason is completely financial,” he said.
The university plans to recommend the closure to the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents at their meeting Dec. 1-2 in Las Vegas, according to UNR’s announcement Monday.
“This is big,” Elko County Manager Rob Stokes said Monday. “It’s unfortunate. Certainly the county has been very supportive” of the academy.
Elko County, the City of Elko and the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority all contributed $25,000 a year under a sustainability effort to keep the doors open, and Carlin provided a break on water rates. Academy clients also contributed.
Johnson said the contributions from the cities and county were supposed to be a stopgap measure for three years while the academy sought funds elsewhere for long-term financial support, but that didn’t happen.
The academy hoped to be added to the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, “but we didn’t find the congressional support to be added,” Johnson said, adding that consortium members already saw their budgets cut 50 percent.
Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, said his biggest fear is a loss of room nights with the loss of academy students who came from out of state to train, but he said Brig. Gen. William Burke offered assurances there will still be people coming from out of state when the Nevada National Guard acquires the site.
The plan had been for the Guard to co-locate at the academy with the fire academy.
The planned sale of the facility to the Nevada National Guard is moving forward and is anticipated to be finalized within months, according to UNR.
ECVA Executive Director Don Newman said Monday that the closure will have an impact on room taxes, which support ECVA’s efforts to market Elko and Elko events.
“We’re lucky we’ve got the mining business to prop up the loss of rooms,” he said.
Newman said the academy filled a high of 8,000 room nights a year but had been down to 6,000 to 6,500 room nights because of uncertainty about whether the academy would remain open.
He said it will be hard to replace that many room nights.
Ellison said Burke assured him a planned regional program “will put a lot of traffic through the motels.”
Stokes said Elko County Commissioners will work closely with the Nevada National Guard.
The academy’s financial challenges result from a long-term legacy debt associated with the purchase and construction of the facility and a mediated settlement between the parties involved, UNR stated in its announcement.
The Fire Science Academy carries a $24 million capital debt and a $12 million operating debt.
An ad hoc advisory council chaired by the late former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn issued a recommendation in 2008 to the university and regents to close the academy if other options to sustain its financial viability could not be identified and implemented, UNR said.
An advisory committee that Ellison was on while a county commissioner was later formed to come up with options. The panel proposed co-location of the Guard and academy, with the Guard through the Nevada State Lands Division paying UNR $10 million on the debt.
UNR also charges a per-credit, $6.50 fee paid to students to apply toward the Fire Science Academy’s capital debt. Once the sale of the facility closes, $4 of this fee will be redirected to support new bonding capacity for future, student-oriented, campus capital projects, according to the university.
The remaining portion of the fee will continue to be applied toward the remaining Fire Science Academy’s capital debt, UNR reported.
Proceeds from the Carlin facility’s sale and a portion of the 2005 sale of property at Mill Street and McCarran Boulevard in Reno will also be applied toward the capital debt. The university stated it continues to explore options by which to relieve the operating debt.
“The legacy debt has plagued the Fire Science Academy for many years. Despite this, the staff has worked diligently and has developed a program that is recognized worldwide. Their dedication has resulted in a greatly improved annual financial performance. However, the reality is the financial performance does not provide for needed debt relief,” Johnson said.
The recommendation to the Regents proposes closure of most of the Fire Science Academy’s operations on Dec. 31. Some classroom-based training programs will likely be held as scheduled in early 2012.
The Fire Science Academy staff includes 28 full-time positions, and UNR stated if the closure is approved most will lose positions, but some may continue into the post-sale transition.
Johnson said there is a possibility clients of the academy may come up with a way to keep the academy opened, but “it is a slim crack in the door.”