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Legislature weighs replacing NDSU facility labeled as an 'embarrassment'

BISMARCK, N.D. — To get distilled water in North Dakota State University's Harris Hall, one must first make sure no one is using the men's bathroom. Then, the water has to be hauled from the distillation system — housed awkwardly in the bathroom — to wherever it is needed. The process, besides being inefficient and uncomfortable, exposes the water to contaminants.

Then, there are issues with asbestos, a leaky roof, an inadequate electrical system and a host of other problems that come with doing world-class agriculture research in a building built, as North Dakota Stockmen's Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson told the North Dakota House Appropriations Committee, "in the days of poodle skirts and sock hops."

North Dakota agriculture groups and NDSU officials have lined up to support replacing the aging building and moving food sciences, plant sciences, the meat lab and the Northern Crops Institute to a new, larger, more modern location. Advocates for the plan packed a hearing room for a meeting of the North Dakota House Appropriations Committee on Monday, March 11. Some have gone as far as calling the matter the most important issue of the 2019 legislative session for agriculture.

The leaking roof at Harris Hall puts equipment in jeopardy.The projects are encompassed in Senate Bill 2297, a capital spending bill for the North Dakota University System. Among other projects, the bill would allow the state to finance $54 million for an Agricultural Products Development Center and $10 million for an expanded Northern Crops Institute. In order for the bonding to go into effect, the state has to raise $6 million for the Agricultural Products Development Center and $8 million for the Northern Crops Institute.

The bill earlier unanimously passed the Senate, and its fate is still to be determined in the House. No one spoke against the bill during the March 11 hearing.

Another era

Harris Hall was built in 1954 to house milling, baking and macaroni processing equipment, as well as equipment for other laboratories, according to NDSU. The building has undergone four additions and has been retrofitted for more and more advanced equipment and work. The Northern Crops Institute, a collaborative effort among North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota to support the promotion and market development of crops grown in this four-state region, is attached to the building's south side.

Rich Horsley shows the distillation system in the men's bathroom at Harris Hall in North Dakota Grain Growers Association video.House Appropriations members got a virtual tour of Harris Hall from Rich Horsley, head of the NDSU plant sciences department, courtesy of a video produced and shown by the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. The video showed tiles that still contain asbestos, labs that don't have running water and damage from the leaking roof.

Standing at a fuse box, Horsley explained the inadequacies of the electrical system:

"You have your computer, you have your lights and you have your air conditioner. And you can only have two of those three things running at the same time."

If all those problems were dealt with, Horsley said while standing in a narrow hallway, space issues still would be there. That's also the problem at the Northern Crops Institute — there no longer is enough space for the work to be done.

On top of that, none of the laboratories in Harris Hall are food-grade, so nothing produced in the areas of food science and cereal science can be consumed.

When trade teams come in, they notice the deficiencies. A Japanese visitor called the building a "museum," Horsley said in the video.

Greg Svenningsen, who serves on the North Dakota Wheat Commission, had a more stark way of looking at it.

"What an embarrassment," he told the House Appropriations Committee.

Research, trade, recruiting

Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, is a sponsor of Senate Bill 2297.Svenningsen serves on the Northern Crops Council, which oversees the Northern Crop Institute. He described taking trade groups to Barry Hall — a state-of-the-art building on NDSU's campus built in 2009 — and to the Northern Crop Institute, which, while outgrown, is still up-to-date. Then they go across to Harris Hall and find the "aging facility" wanting.

"These are the facilities where people come from all over the world to take a look at the quality products we grow here in this state to decide if they are going to trade with us here in North Dakota," explained Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who sponsors SB 2297.

Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, said the facility has housed "top-notch scientists." He said lost positions have meant fewer of those scientists are working in the area of cereal science, but still they've managed to retain a scientist doing important work. The problem is, other universities also have recognized her work and have recruited her. The other universities have superior facilities, giving them an edge in attracting talent, Fisher said.

Jeff Mertz is president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association."They're picking off our scientists because they have better facilities," said Jeff Mertz, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.

Mertz said the research being done is valuable beyond academics. Plant breeding at NDSU provides new varieties that can offer high production, important in a time of low prices. The "antiquated" building means fewer advancements can be made.

"We need to give these individuals the tools they need to take us to the next level," Mertz said.

Julie Ellingson is the executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.Ellingson said a new meat lab has been a priority for the Stockmen's Association and the livestock industry for years. The meat lab also was built in the 1950s. The research done at NDSU makes a "dollars and sense" difference for the industry already, she said. She pointed to research refuting a myth that eating beef contributes to early-onset puberty in females. Ground-breaking research is happening even though the lab "really can't keep up with today's rigorous standards," she said.

Greg Lardy, vice president for agriculture affairs at NDSU, said a new facility would help attract researchers, faculty and students excited to study for careers in the ag fields. Replacing Harris Hall would be "an investment in the long-term security of the agriculture industry," he said.

"The benefits multiply and impact not only agricultural producers and our commodity organizations, but really, every citizen in the state is going to benefit from a project like this," Lardy said.

Other projects

Asbestos-containing tiles at NDSU's Harris Hall are among the building's deficiencies.SB 2297 is not just a bill for ag projects. Also included are a chemistry building at NDSU, a music building at Valley City State University and a project at Dickinson State University's Pulver Hall. Also proposed at the March 11 House Appropriations Committee hearing was a business and public affairs building at the University of North Dakota, though that has not been added to the bill yet.

Wardner said that while he has historically not been a proponent of bonding bills, the projects will need to get done at some point down the road, and the price tag only will go up. Financing the projects, to be paid out of the general fund of the state, makes good sense for the future of the state, he said.

"It's the right thing to do," Warder told the Appropriations Committee.

Greg Lardy is vice president of agriculture affairs at North Dakota State University.North Dakota agriculture groups already have been involved in the fundraising for the projects. Lardy said about $3 million has been raised of the $6 million needed for the Agricultural Products Development Center. Mark Jirik, director of the Northern Crops Institute, said he has a number of "soft commitments" and a lot of verbal support for the project.

While the Northern Crops Institute is nowhere near the age of Harris Hall, Jirik said it was built in the 1980s, when the crop focus in the region was on wheat and barley. With pulse crops, soybeans and corn gaining in popularity over the decades, as well as changing standards, Jirik said the time has come for a new facility.

"We have a hard time meeting any food safety standards just given how standards have changed," he said. "And we've run out of space."