State green-lights NIU’s $23 million sustainability center

The State of Illinois has announced it will begin the design phase of the planned Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS), essentially green-lighting the $23 million project.

The Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability will be built on NIU’s west campus, near this site where a study on prairie restoration is already underway.

The state’s agency in charge of project construction, the Capital Development Board, is seeking formal bids from architectural and engineering firms for the planned sustainability research center.

Announced in October 2018, NICCS is part of the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN), a group of state-funded research and innovation hubs that are under development and aimed at driving economic growth in Illinois while addressing critical global issues.

“The Illinois Innovation Network exists to ensure the needs and ideas of every community are represented in the economy of the future, and I’m proud to dedicate $15 million in state funding to bring this hub for groundbreaking research to DeKalb,” Gov. JB Pritzker said. “The establishment of NIU’s Center for Community Sustainability represents a climate advancement for our whole state, and I’m proud to greenlight its development.”

IIN centers will support interdisciplinary research, policy development and public-private partnerships to stimulate economic development and job creation, as well as to attract and develop talent. NICCS will be a world-class research facility focusing on water resources, environmental change, and food systems, while also promoting science-based policies and practices for communities.

“We appreciate the continued efforts by Gov. Pritzker and state legislators to support this project, which will benefit our region, the entire state and well beyond,” NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman said. “We have the opportunity to grow our economy in ways that promote equity, protect the environment and meet the needs of the present and future.

“NIU is a perfect fit for this new center because our distinctive peri-urban geography positions us to understand the stresses among cities, suburbs and farmlands and create sustainable solutions to span the gaps,” Dr. Freeman added. “The new center will address statewide sustainability issues, drive economic opportunity and spur public-private partnerships and investment. NICCS will also create opportunities for NIU faculty members to expand their research related to food systems, water resources and environmental change, and educate the next generation of environmental scientists and stewards.”

The roughly 30,000-square-foot NICCS facility will be constructed on the university’s west campus, in an area northwest of the NIU Convocation Center.

NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman says NICCS will “educate the next generation of environmental scientists and stewards.”

About two-thirds of the new building’s cost, or $15 million, will be financed from the $500 million in state capital funding approved in 2018 to launch the innovation network. NIU will provide the remaining $8 million through in-kind contributions. Additional contributions are anticipated through private investment and donations.

Construction could begin in 2023 with the facility coming online in 2026. A concept design calls for a building with classrooms, offices, laboratories, an atrium, an auditorium and collaborative and conference spaces. Two envisaged wings are planned for research and external tenants.

“This unique multiple-use research, innovation and education center will itself serve as a testbed for new technology and operating strategies,” said Gerald C. Blazey, NIU vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships. Blazey also serves as chair of the Illinois Innovation Network Council, which coordinates collaboration between IIN members.

“In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Illinois Innovation Network, we aim to create a world-class destination for experts, university faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, government and business leaders, and citizens working to enhance sustainability in their communities,” Blazey said.

Work at NICCS will focus on three key areas:

  • Improving water resources: NIU faculty, students and IIN partners will develop new sustainable water management systems for agriculture, industry and personal consumption.
  • Predicting and managing environmental change: Research will be conducted on topics that include biodiversity, ecosystem restoration, environmental maintenance, natural disasters, climate change and response to extreme climate events.
  • Creating food-system innovation: The center will conduct multidisciplinary research into new methods of food production, working with partners from across the state, nation and world.

NIU has been busy preparing for the center. In addition to Blazey’s leadership IIN role, the university completed its preliminary planning, identified and recruited faculty who will conduct center-related research and education, initiated research projects and sponsored internal research presentations, as well as a lecture series on food-system innovation.

Blazey said he foresees NICCS developing into a substantial economic engine as the center partners with private industry.

“NICCS addresses real-world challenges and promotes the kind of breakthrough discoveries that can create new products and companies,” he said. “The entire statewide network aims to address critical global issues and drive economic growth in Illinois.”

A strong network of NIU faculty already work on sustainability issues, including the university’s Weather, Climate and Society Research Group. Photo Credit: Victor Gensini, NIU

The center is expected to be a boon for faculty and students as well.

The university has strong network of faculty members who have been working on sustainability issues for many years and have ongoing projects that feed into the mission of the new center. Since the center was first announced, faculty have won grants from the IIN and federal sources to conduct research on American prairie restoration, soil microbes, turning trash into usable products, exploring urban-rural connections and enhancing agricultural practices.

Additionally, NIU has seen strong student interest in sustainability. The university has more than 100 students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies, and many hundreds more pursuing degrees in areas ranging from meteorology and geology to engineering and law where sustainability issues regularly come to the fore. The new center’s classrooms, laboratories and collaborative spaces will further promote sustainability education, collaboration and research conducted by faculty and students alike.

“In my field, the issue of sustainability is extremely important—from enhancing long-range, severe-weather forecasts to developing dwellings and business structures that can withstand a region’s extreme weather events,” Meteorology Professor Victor Gensini said.

Gensini is a key member of the university’s Weather, Climate and Society Research Group, which studies how weather and climate extremes impact humans and our economy.

“The sustainability issues we are tackling today are complex and require expertise from many different disciplines,” he said. “It’s exciting to know that the new Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability will be at the forefront of collaborations on sustainability solutions for decades to come.”

Source: Northern Illinois University

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