While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted in-person instruction at many institutions of higher learning across the nation, Duluth's inventory of student housing remains in critically short supply, according to Daniel Fanning, Lake Superior College's vice president of institutional advancement and external relations.
"Now that we're going a little more back to normal, our No. 1 concern is housing," he said.
That's why Fanning considers it unfortunate that there's been a delay in plans to build LSC Flats, a proposed 87-unit/204-bed student housing development next door to Lake Superior College. Yet Fanning said he also understands the predicament the project faces.
A spike in the cost of building materials has given pause to the would-be developer, Titanium Partners.
"We've had nearly a six-fold increase in lumber prices in the last year. So, what we're really struggling with as developers is: How do you keep the rents affordable?" said Brian Forcier, managing partner for the Duluth-based firm.
"I think it's going to halt a lot of new development until we see what happens post-pandemic," he said.
On Wednesday, the Duluth Economic Development Authority voted 4-0 to amend a development agreement with Titanium Partners, pushing off the construction of LSC Flats until 2022, with a completion date of no later than the end of 2023. The authority helped assemble some of the land for the proposed housing development.
This marks the second time the timeline for LSC has been pushed back. Initially, construction was to begin by June 1, 2020 with the development being ready to open its doors by the fall of 2021.
Forcier said he remains confident the project will remain a go, despite the delays.
"We're still going to build this project. But what we're being forced to do is look at things like the layout, design and ways to cut construction costs, quite frankly," Forcier said.
"We always want to put out a quality product for the kids. That's what we were trying to do, and we still will. But my guess is that it won't be quite as tall or amenity-rich. It will be more basic amenities," he said, explaining that he will likely opt for a three-story structure instead of the six-floor building originally envisioned.
The initial budget for the project was about $18 million.
Another complication facing the project is the uncertainty of the pandemic, said Chris Fleege, director of Duluth's planning and economic development department.
While there's reason to believe there will be a strong return to in-person learning on college campuses as increasing numbers of people get vaccinated, Fleege said: "I think everybody just wants to see what the return really looks like."
"If a couple more semesters gives them more confidence in the ability to move forward, that's great with us," he said.
Fanning noted that even throughout the pandemic, a large share of LSC's student body continued to attend in-person classes, particularly for degrees that require hands-on training, such as in health care, aviation and manufacturing fields.
"Our enrollment is bouncing back pretty strong," he said, pointing out that many of the school's new admissions hail from outside the community, with many coming from the Twin Cities metro area.
Those new students only intensify the need for additional housing, said Fanning, who observed: "The demand is probably stronger than ever."