U.K. university to move forward on Placer County campus

A university from England agreed Thursday to build a 6,000-student campus on farmland west of Roseville, bringing Placer County a significant step closer to its dream of hosting a major college.

Some 16 months after being recruited in person by Placer officials, the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, said its governing council signed off on the campus. It will be on land donated by a partnership led by the family of Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, one of Sacramento’s leading land developers.

The campus could spark a building boom in the vicinity, which would benefit Tsakopoulos and other landowners. That’s made the idea controversial at times with environmentalists and others. But Placer County officials have embraced the project and welcomed the university’s decision to move ahead with the campus.

Kirk Uhler, chairman of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, called the university’s approval “a momentous achievement for the Sacramento region” but warned that an operational campus will be a long time coming.

“In terms of a physical campus, we’re probably looking at a couple of years before the first building goes up,” Uhler said.

Peter Dunn, the university’s director of press and policy, said the school will probably rent temporary space in Roseville and that some postgraduate classes could be offered within a few years. But he couldn’t offer a more specific timetable. The university, which serves 23,000 students in Coventry, wants the Placer campus to accommodate 6,000 students by 2031.

Placer officials have spent years trying to bring a major college campus to their county, and they sent a delegation to Coventry in November 2013 to pitch the idea. The effort clearly impressed Warwick’s leaders.

“Why would we want to do it? These people are equally as ambitious as we are,” Dunn said. On its website, Warwick described the Placer campus as a “landmark initiative” for the 50-year-old university.

The campus would sit on a 1,159-acre parcel donated in 2012 by a partnership led by the Tsakopoulos family. About half the land would be devoted to the university. The rest would be developed with homes and businesses, with proceeds from the development going to build the college campus, said Michael Faust, a spokesman for the University Development Trust. The trust is a nonprofit associated with the Tsakopoulos family that will work on obtaining various permits for developing the non-university portion of the land.

“It’s a real nice offer,” Dunn said. “They’re putting forward a parcel of land; they’re putting forward the money to do this.”

Placer’s quest for a college campus has proceeded on multiple tracks. California State University, Sacramento, is considering building on a spot south of Thunder Valley Casino. That property, known as Placer Ranch, is north and east of the Tsakopoulos land that is being eyed by the University of Warwick.

Tsakopoulos has been trying to get a campus built in Placer for more than a decade. He recruited Philadelphia’s Drexel University, but that plan fizzled. Drexel opened a business school campus in a building the Tsakopoulos family owns in Old Sacramento but never took the next step of expanding to a larger campus in Placer.

When Tsakopoulos first floated the idea of donating land for a university, back in 2001, he was criticized by some environmental groups. They charged that he was using a college campus as a stalking horse to get development approvals for other lands he controls in the area.

The Tsakopoulos family then angered some in Placer political circles by jumping into a 2006 supervisor’s race. The family spent more than $200,000 in an unsuccessful effort to unseat a supervisor who had raised questions about the university land plan.

Faust said the Tsakopoulos family continues to own land in Placer County that would benefit from development of the campus. But he said the presence of a major university will have a positive economic impact on the region, not just any one landowner.

“There will be ancillary benefit to everybody,” he said.

Uhler praised the Tsakopoulos-led partnership for donating the land, which he said could be worth as much as $250 million.

“It is an incredible donation, the likes of which are unprecedented anywhere in our region,” said the Placer supervisor.

He added that the Tsakopoulos group spent millions of dollars on fees to get the land properly entitled for development. The property still needs some additional approvals before sewers, major roads and other infrastructure basics can be built, he said.

The partnership led by the Tsakopoulos family donated the 1,159 acres in late 2012 to a nonprofit called W.M. Corp., led by Tsakopoulos’ son-in-law, journalist and author Markos Kounalakis. The nonprofit changed its name last fall to University Development Trust and is now being led by Tsakopoulos’ son, Kyriakos, according to Faust.

“It is thrilling that the University of Warwick, one of the premier world universities, has taken the first official step to establish a new campus in our region,” said Kyriakos Tsakopoulos in a prepared statement.

Dunn said the project fits with Warwick’s goal of becoming “a globally connected university.”

Founded 50 years ago, Warwick has been consistently ranked among the top 10 universities in the United Kingdom. The university prides itself on forging ties with business and industry, and saw Placer County as a community with similar leanings, Dunn said.

“Warwick’s known for being entrepreneurial,” Dunn said. “We could see kindred folks there.” The Placer site would be its first overseas campus.

There’s another connection between Warwick and the Placer site. The Coventry campus was nothing but farmland when the university was founded 50 years ago, Dunn said.

“What we’re trying to do in California parallels that experience,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

University of Warwick

▪ Founded 1965, Coventry, England.

▪ Serves 23,872 students, including 8,340 from foreign countries.

▪ Schools include medicine, science, social sciences.

▪ Ranked No. 8 in U.K. by Sunday Times, No. 9 by The Guardian.