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Make Avery Point a legislative priority

Published December 03. 2013 4:00AM

Southeastern Connecticut has a veteran legislative delegation, which should translate into greater influence in the General Assembly. The state senators and representatives that the people of the region keep electing to office also happen to be Democrats, the party that dominates both chambers of the legislature and holds the governorship.

So what should the delegation do with that political leverage? One good option is working to secure more aid to improve the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton and capitalize on its ability to be a job generator.

The General Assembly signed off on investing $1.6 billion in UConn over the next decade in the "Next Generation Connecticut" effort, a program intended to expand and improve the university's science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings.

Initially, Avery Point did not even get a mention when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and University President Susan Herbst announced the Next Generation initiative. When some local elected leaders, lawmakers and this newspaper noted the glaring oversight, an amendment to the legislation included $15 million for the campus. As pointed out in a prior editorial, that amounts to less than 1 percent of the planned investment over the next decade. That does not even rise to the level of a token gesture.

The plan is to spend the Avery Point money on projects that are largely required maintenance, not on new facilities or programs aimed at boosting STEM initiatives. Planned are $10 million in renovations to modernize older buildings and $5 million in waterfront improvements for the campus that has a strong marine sciences program.

Fortunately, it appears that state Sen. Andrew Maynard, whose 18th District includes Groton, is not about to settle for $15 million. The four-term Democrat from Stonington is a member of the Appropriations Committee and co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. Sen. Maynard predicted members of the local delegation will push for more investment in coming years for the Avery Point campus as funds are awarded under the Next Generation program.

"We will get there," Sen. Maynard told Day Staff Writer Johanna Somers.

If the true goal is job generation through improved STEM programs (and not just a slush fund for President Herbst to pay for work at the main Storrs campus), Avery Point provides an opportunity that the state and region cannot afford to miss.

Sally M. Reis, vice provost for academic affairs at UConn, references that potential in her May 2013 internal report to the administration, titled, "Next Generation Avery Point: Expanding STEM Initiatives." The Day obtained the seven-page report through a Freedom of Information request.

"Our Avery Point campus is uniquely situated, both academically and geographically, to become a STEM Center. The Avery Point community includes researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers who will contribute to growth, discovery, and development in the southeastern part of our state. In fact, a recent Avery Point study demonstrates the critical economic importance of an evolving maritime industry to our state's economy and economic development. Next Generation Avery Point is an opportunity to transform the Avery Point Campus and make this vision a reality," wrote the provost.

Possibilities, she notes, include greatly expanding an incubator program that gives researchers in the pharmaceutical industry, displaced by Pfizer reductions, the chance to start new businesses. The demand is there, wrote Ms. Reis, but the space and facilities are not.

In 2012 Avery Point implemented a pilot undergraduate program in engineering and would like to expand it along with its masters of engineering program. Expanding these programs would help meet job demands at Electric Boat, Dominion (Millstone nuclear station) and at the Naval Submarine Base. Investing in engineering programs also will provide opportunities for public-private partnerships with these corporations.

Eventually, adding dormitories would create more options for students. Buildings dating to World War II need to be demolished and replaced. And Avery Point could become a leader in climate change research.

But the "opportunity to transform the Avery Point Campus" to "make this vision a reality" cannot be realized without substantial investment. It is money worth fighting for.

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