Why the Blatchford lands are essential to NAIT's future

"First and foremost, we are stewards of this amazing institution"

February 6, 2019, has the potential to be one of those days that, decades from now, people look back on and say, “That changed everything.”

nait growth from opening to blatchford expansion, 1963 - 2019That afternoon, members of NAIT staff and representatives from the City of Edmonton and the Province of Alberta met in a boardroom atop the polytechnic’s tower, an eight-storey building opened on Main Campus in 1965. Back then, the view would have been of airplanes coming and going from the City Centre Airport.

Now, it’s very different.

NAIT president and CEO Dr. Glenn Feltham, board chair Ray Martin, Mayor Don Iveson, MLA David Shepherd and others looked onto an expanse of 216 flat, snowy hectares (536 acres), emptied of aircraft by 2013 and ready for transformation. The land is the future site of Blatchford, designed to be one of the world’s largest sustainable communities. And, as was announced at a recent news conference in the tower, it’s the site of a NAIT expansion unlike any before it.

NAIT has acquired 13.27 hectares (32.79 acres) on the Blatchford development site to the west of main campus at Kingsway Avenue and 109 Street, along with an option to purchase another 3.23 hectares (eight acres) to the southwest. It has also purchased the City’s former Westwood Transit Garage to the north, for a total of about 21.5 hectares (53 acres). The land will allow the polytechnic to roughly double in size, says Feltham.

For a previously “land-locked” campus, he adds, “it absolutely secures NAIT’s land [and growth] needs for the next century.”

In light of the development, techlifetoday asked Feltham about NAIT’s vision for the land, the impact it will have on students and the province, and when the polytechnic’s plans for expansion will take off.

Techlifetoday: When did you first become aware of the possibility of Blatchford and what were your thoughts about it?

Dr. Glenn Feltham: When I first came to NAIT [in 2011], there was a development plan that would see two main campuses: one where Main Campus is now and the second at Ellerslie Road and Highway 2, [for] the skilled trades.

I was actually quite concerned about a permanent divide between the skilled trades and our other programs. Parity of esteem is critical, both between polytechnic education and other forms of post-secondary education as well as within a polytechnic itself. All of our programs are critical for developing learners who will be able to contribute in the future to our economy.

With the potential closure of the airport lands [being discussed at the time], an option was emerging to move to a single campus, which would ensure that all of our students had a similar experience. So we started to talk about a one-campus model, and that’s where the journey began.

Coming to an agreement took time. What were the challenges?

The challenges related to the complexity of the transactions. In addition to the Blatchford lands, there were the Westwood bus barn lands, there were buildings that were being leased. And there was the evolution in how the City perceived [Blatchford], including [public] transportation, how the land would be serviced, and what it meant to be a green community.

The complexities were greater than any land transaction I have ever seen. But in working through them, we all gained an even greater appreciation for the incredible opportunity.

Why is a one-campus model important?

For me, one campus means several different things. One is efficiency. When you bring all of your programs together, it’s simply less expensive, and the most effective way to deliver our education mission and partner with industry.

Second, the one-campus model elevates the student experience. We can put in place things like recreational facilities, student housing and all of the supports that students need, and create that environment where we truly can support all of them at a high level and in a consistent way.

The third thing relates to the nature of Blatchford. This is a community that’s looking into the future, a green community that is focused on best practice in the same way as NAIT. We can be part of that community, and that will fundamentally elevate polytechnic education.

That’s not just about being a sustainable campus, but if we think of the nature of services [such as] access to LRT and allowing all of our students to be within that corridor between NAIT and the University of Alberta, it allows us to play an even larger role in the post-secondary structure, and in the city and province.

How did you feel when you ultimately realized this acquisition was going to happen?

Two words come to mind. One is pride – incredible pride in the institution, in all of the individuals who came together to make this happen. And the second word is relief. After many years, this has come together. While we never had doubt that it would, boy it felt good to sign the documents.

What’s the first thing you’d like to see NAIT do with the land?

It’s going to relate to student housing. But [first] we are going to focus on plans for what [expansion] will look like.

This year, we are going to map out a long-term vision for what this campus will be. When we think of NAIT being a world-leading polytechnic and the most relevant and responsive polytechnic in Canada, this is a fundamental part of that vision and will continue to move us in that direction.

What exactly happens next is a story still to be told, then.

Absolutely. In post-secondary, we tend to focus on the here and now. Sometimes we forget just how important our stewardship role is – that our purpose is to continue to build this amazing polytechnic and take actions that will fundamentally leave the institution in a strong place to meet the needs of Alberta into the future.

Through this, we have taken a huge leap in meeting our stewardship responsibility. Having the land doesn’t mean we start developing in the first hour. In some ways, it’s like when a city has the foresight to buy land for future ring roads. A smart city thinks 30, 50 years ahead. For us though, this is not a ring road – this goes directly to our raison d'être.

Like many great things in life, the journey wasn’t linear and it wasn’t easy. But the destination is absolutely critical to this institution, to our city and to our province. We are eliminating one of the largest constraints that we have to future success for generation after generation.

This land will allow NAIT to expand, evolve and change for the next century and beyond.

Edmonton Journal, NAIT opens, 1963

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