U.K. university scraps plans for Placer County campus

A British university canceled its proposed Placer County satellite campus Wednesday, derailing county officials’ dreams of landing a major college campus.

The University of Warwick announced it’s abandoning its plans to build a 6,000-student campus west of Roseville, citing financial concerns and other issues. It said the project “had moved too far beyond the original vision” and the university could “no longer see a model going forward” for the campus.

The development group that controls the land said it has already reached out to other universities to replace Warwick, but the talks have been preliminary.

Warwick announced that its governing council, which approved the project in 2015, reversed course in part because of “concerns about the evolving financial framework” of the 600-acre campus. Warwick also cited “some of the regulatory issues that would apply to a non U.S.-based institution wishing to establish itself in California.”

Placer officials have been trying to lure a major college campus for years, and the Warwick project appeared to be its most promising prospect. Placer officials visited Warwick’s campus in Coventry, England, in 2013 and eventually convinced the university to build the satellite campus. Warwick officials were so enthused about Placer that they agreed to open a small campus on rented property in downtown Roseville as a way of jump-starting the project. The downtown site was supposed to open in 2018.

The main campus was going to sit on a 1,159-acre parcel in west Placer donated by a partnership led by the family of land developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos. About half the land would have been developed with homes and businesses, with the development proceeds devoted beginning construction on the campus. A nonprofit associated with the Tsakopoulos family, the University Development Foundation, was going to take the lead on the project.

But even with the funds generated by the developers, money apparently loomed as an impediment to getting the campus underway. A 2016 report by an economic consultant working for the Greater Sacramento Economic Council said construction of the entire campus would cost an estimated $1.5 billion over the course of a decade.

The proceeds from the real estate development would have generated “the seed money to get you off the runway,” said University Development spokesman Michael Faust. But Warwick would still have been facing hefty expenditures of its own.

“Any university that partners with University Development Foundation will have to be in the business of growing their campus, building their campus,” Faust said.

Universities in general have struggled at times to open and operate remote campuses, particularly in the Sacramento area.

More than a decade ago, Tsakopoulos recruited a Catholic order and St. Mary’s College of Moraga to build a private college called De La Salle University on the west Placer parcel. But that fizzled when the order complained about red tape and withdrew its backing. Then the Tsakopoulos family convinced Philadelphia’s Drexel University to build on the Placer land, but the idea never progressed beyond a small campus that opened in 2009 in a Tsakopoulos-owned office building near the Tower Bridge in Old Sacramento. Drexel pulled the plug on the campus in 2015.

Given all the preparation Warwick made, “this is especially disappointing,” said Robert Weygandt, a county supervisor whose district includes the west Placer land.

Placer’s college campus dreams haven’t died, however. The county is continuing to work with officials from Sacramento State on a major campus proposed for the Placer Ranch development west of Rocklin, a project that has been in the planning stages for years.

That plan appeared to hit a serious roadblock when developer Eli Broad took control of Placer Ranch in 2015 and announced he was reconsidering what to do with the property. But Holly Tiche, president of Placer Ranch Inc., said the development team is still talking with Sacramento State and its partner, Sierra College.

“The indications are really good” for the Sacramento State project, Weygandt said.

As for the Warwick property, Faust said the University Development group had already begun reaching out to universities when it appeared that the Warwick project was “looking wobbly.” He wouldn’t identify any potential replacements.

“We are hopeful the land and permitting process will move forward soon to make this opportunity as attractive as possible to another university,” said Jennifer Montgomery, chair of the Placer board of Supervisors, in a prepared statement.

In a prepared statement, the University Development Foundation said it plans to complete its purchase of an old firehouse in downtown Roseville to provide space for educational use. That spot was supposed to house Warwick’s initial campus. Foundation chairman Kyriakos Tsakopoulos said he’s confident another educational partner can be found for the Roseville property and the larger, 600-acre site in west Placer.

“I have no doubt that the University Development Foundation will find the right match to expand opportunities for higher education in our community,” he said in a statement.

Area officials said it’s possible geopolitical issues may have been a factor in Warwick’s decision.

Britain’s pending exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, has forced U.K. universities to deal with a host of issues, from the status of their non-British faculty members to declines in their worldwide reputations.

Brexit is becoming “a moment of really great trauma potentially for us as individuals and also for our institutions,” said Stuart Croft, a Warwick vice chancellor, in an interview last month with the Guardian newspaper.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler