Ottawa University plans campus, dorms in Surprise

Ottawa Univeristy President Kevin Eichner speaks about the development of the new Surprise Campus Friday, Feb. 17 2017 at City Hall in Surprise. (Independent Newsmedia/Jacob Stanek)

By Richard Smith
Independent Newsmedia

A centerpiece of Surprise’s vision for its future will soon be in place.

Friday morning Ottawa University, in conjunction with the city, announced its intent to build a 35-acre residential campus in the southern end of the Civic Center. With the target of having 3,000 residential students in 10 years, Ottawa University Arizona aims to enroll its first group of 250 when it opens this fall.

“This is truly a monumental day for our city and I can’t wait to see the future leaders walking the Ottawa University campus here in Surprise this next school year and for many, many decades to come,” said Surprise Mayor Sharon Wolcott said during her speech at Friday’s university dedication event.

The Kansas-based university with a 40-year history in the Valley will offer a variety of degrees through four main colleges on campus. Ottawa also plans to field teams in 19 sports, some at on-campus facilities and is applying to compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
Ottawa University president Kevin Eichner said it is difficult to project a firm dollar figure for the campus, as the speed of its construction will depend on interest.

“There’s probably a couple hundred million invested in this venture,” Mr. Eichner said.

Campus building began in earnest last month when Ottawa bought the Communiversity, the formerly multi-college building just south of City Hall. The 27,000-square-foot building will be the college’s first nerve center.

That is fitting, since this process began when Ottawa began offering classes at the Communiversity in 2009.

A mural including the new Ottawa University Arizona logo and Spirit nickname is on the west wall of the former Communiversity building at the Surprise Civic Center. Ottawa University bought the Communiversity last month. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

“Surprise and Ottawa owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Maricopa County Community College District. MCCD had the foresight 10 years ago to see Surprise as great place to invest in education and innovation. The education building they developed has few peers and the Communiversity model of collaboration between multiple public and private institutions of higher education was groundbreaking. That groundbreaking collaboration provided Ottawa the perfect climate to incubate in Surprise and prepare for a transition to a residential campus,” Surprise City Manager Bob Wingenroth said.

Mr. Eichner said he attended The Council of Independent Colleges presidents’ conference in 2010 and talked with several city officials including Mike Hoover, still a mainstay of the city’s economic development staff.

Mr. Wingenroth said the Surprise higher education initiative started in earnest in 2011 with the adoption of the City Council strategic plan. However, a significant financial shortfall uncovered by the city later that year forced Surprise to pull back.

In the intervening years, Mr. Eichner said, Ottawa met with three or four other Valley cities about a residential campus. Mr. Wingenroth said Surprise hosted a half dozen college presidents early in the process to assess the community’s offerings as a place for a new campus and reaffirmed the importance of a residential campus downtown in its 2013 reaffirmation of the plan.

On both fronts negotiations cooled until late 2015, Mr. Eichner said. In 2016 the Ottawa University board toured the Surprise Civic Center and a second, unnamed site in the Valley before deciding where to build.
There was not much need for formality.

“After it was over we were on the bus and I talked about our two choices. The chairman of the board stopped me and said, ‘No, there’s one choice,” Mr. Eichner said. “That’s what they thought of Surprise.”

He said the desirability of the city starts with the location at the city center with enough land, plenty of transportation links and top notch athletic facilities within a block. The relationship built with current Surprise officials only enhanced the choice.

Once built, Ottawa will be the first residential campus in the growing far West Valley. Right now the closest dorms are at Arizona State University West and Grand Canyon University, both closer to the Interstate 17 corridor.

Mr. Wingenroth said the addition of a university campus will bring tremendous value to the community, in terms of education options and community pride.

“The education piece is exciting because Surprise will now have programs in a campus setting for undergraduate students and also Ottawa’s exceptional corporate training program, which will bolster the city’s ability to support large employers. The community pride piece is great because Ottawa is adding to the city’s fantastic sports and recreation pedigree with its collegiate athletic programs. The city is excited about the energy the campus students will bring to the community, the service work with community members both young and mature will have a significant impact,” Mr. Wingenroth said.

To see Ottawa Univeristy Arizona’s unique approach to college, visit this story.

A transition from branch campus to dorms, fields and academic buildings will take a few years.

Mr. Eichner said the first on-campus dorm could be fast tracked for this fall, though that has not been decided yet. In his speech Friday morning, he said Ottawa is collaborating with Surprise-based Custom Complex Structures on a dorm built using modular construction techniques that could open Aug. 1.

“These guys have been incredible,” Mr. Eichner said Friday.

When it opens, the dorm will house between 250 and 300 students. Classes and degree programs are offered in the schools of arts and sciences, business, education and health and applied sciences.

The dorm, former Communiversity and land north of Tierra Buena Lane and stretching west to Dreamcatcher Park will be Ottawa’s north campus

A second phase of construction on 20 acres south of Tierra Buena to Greenway Road — likely in the next three years — will include the main Ottawa University Arizona building, and indoor recreation facility and some larger dorms that will be five stories tall.

“The stability of the institution and commitment to growing in Surprise has given the city the confidence to champion its transition into a campus with a full complement of offerings from academics, athletics, service work, to student housing,” Mr. Wingenroth said.

An artist’s rendition of the first phase of the Ottawa University Arizona campus in Surprise. (Courtesy Ottawa University)

A large number of the initial 250 students will be athletes, Mr. Eichner said. The 18 sports other than football will start play in the 2017-18 season. He said the university probably would not attempt this campus without the athletic component.

Another focus for the university affiliated with the American Baptist Church is the Ottawa Alliance for Quality Christian Education, a network of non-profit, mission-based organizations interested in supporting a Christ-inspired community of grace throughout their educational institutions and the world.

“This market is almost virtually underserved in terms of athletes who want to continue their careers in college and students who want to explore the ministry,” Mr. Eichner said.

He said Ottawa has Christian roots and programs but is an open and inclusive university. Programs for adults will remain and the university plans to reach out to retirees in the area for educational and volunteer opportunities.

The new campus should also strengthen the connection with 8,300 Ottawa alumns in the Valley, a larger base than the university’s Kansas home.

When classes start in August, it will represent the next phase of a relationship between city and college that Mr. Wingenroth said was allowed to grow organically this decade.

“Surprise is a college town. Our graduating high school seniors now have the option to pursue a college degree in their hometown,” Mayor Sharon Wolcott stated in a press release. “This partnership keeps our promise to residents; after all, university campus development is part of the City Council’s Strategic Plan and we could not ask for a better partner than Ottawa University. This is a storied educational institution with more than 150 years of success and a 40-year foothold in the Phoenix market. They know us and we know them!”

For enrollment and information about Ottawa University Arizona in Surprise, visit

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