UMass satellite center explored for Springfield

The University of Massachusetts is taking tentative steps toward opening a satellite campus in Springfield

The University of Massachusetts is taking tentative steps toward opening a satellite campus in Springfield that would be overseen by UMass Amherst and provide on-site and online courses offered by several of the UMass schools.

The state university system issued a request for proposals on Monday to lease 25,000 square feet of space in downtown Springfield for classrooms and faculty offices. Officials say the RFP will help clarify how much the satellite operation would cost.

“We know that the demand is there and that the business and political leadership supports it,” UMass President Robert Caret said in a statement. “The questions before us now are whether it is feasible to do this and whether there are sufficient resources available to help us meet this challenge.’’

UMass officials say the satellite center’s academic program is still in the early planning stages, but would probably include classes that would count toward two-year associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees in partnership with local community colleges, as well as undergraduate and graduate programs in several fields including business, health care, and education.

Interest in the venture began when Caret toured the state on a bus in October 2011 and heard from many local officials who wanted UMass to expand into their areas. Many local officials view academic institutions as economic development tools.

UMass spokeswoman Ann Scales said in an interview that while the university has many tentacles beyond its five campuses, including 75 staffed locations and its online offerings, the needs of towns such as Springfield are still going unmet, according to a study by the UMass Donahue Institute study and commissioned by Caret. Though Springfield is just 20-25 miles from Amherst, it takes a series of bus rides to get there. “If a kid living in Springfield wants to go to UMass Amherst, he or she has to make a really concerted effort,” Scales said.

A second Donahue Institute study confirmed that several current projects in downtown Springfield, such as the State Data Center and the Union Station Intermodal Transit Center, could “work synergistically to help create a more vibrant and dynamic downtown Springfield,” with the UMass satellite center, the report said.

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“This initiative fits into our other economic development plans — Union Station, market rate housing, a world class resort casino development, as well as being in-line with our objective of creating a more eclectic mix in our downtown area,” said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno in a statement. “As we have seen in other urban areas around the state, a presence by UMass can have a very positive effect.”

The responses to the request for proposals are due on Sept. 3, but Scales said the responses are only the beginning of the evaluation process. “Public and private partnership are needed to get this thing off the ground,” she said. “It’s far from a done deal.”