CAMARILLO — Even though one site has already been purchased for a California State University campus in Ventura County, school officials said Friday there are some obvious advantages to the possible conversion of Camarillo State Hospital as an alternative location.
"It's certainly worth looking at," Cal State spokeswoman Colleen Bentley-Adler said. "There are already buildings there, it's a large piece of property, it has good parking and good roads and everybody knows where it is."
Cal State Chancellor Barry Munitz will probably visit the sprawling, 650-acre hospital soon to get a close-up view of the facilities, she said. Munitz was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment.
"He said he is willing to do that," Bentley-Adler said. "He is always open to ideas from people."
Camarillo city officials and state legislators said they are interested in the prospect of converting the hospital into a university campus now that it has been targeted for closure by Gov. Pete Wilson.
"I think it's a great idea," Camarillo Councilwoman Charlotte Craven said. "I think it would bring a real Cal State University for Ventura County into existence a lot faster."
Councilman Mike Morgan said he plans to form a special task force, to include local and state officials, within two weeks to study the conversion proposal.
"There are lots of benefits to this," Morgan said. "It would give us the opportunity to keep a lot of jobs that would otherwise be taken away."
State Sen. Jack O'Connell, who has pushed hard for a public four-year university, said he also wants to explore the possibility of using the hospital site.
"The more options we have, the better," he said. "We have to continue to push the CSU administration and the Legislature about the importance of having a campus in our county sooner than later."
Still, officials cautioned there are many unanswered questions over the fate of Camarillo State Hospital, a 60-year-old mental health institution that supports 1,500 jobs and a payroll of $80 million.
Wilson proposed earlier this week closing the facility as part of his state budget plan, but no final decision has been made. Wilson will present a more detailed report on the proposed closure to the Legislature on April 1.
"There are a lot of ifs--including if it indeed is going to be closed," Bentley-Adler said.
Stephen Mayberg, state director of mental health, has said the psychiatric facility could be kept open if it accepted more mentally ill criminals, a proposal some city officials strongly oppose. They point out that Camarillo is already home to a California Youth Authority campus.
But using the hospital site for a university campus poses its own problems. To begin with, many mental health advocates favor keeping the hospital open. Also, the state has already spent $7 million to purchase a 260-acre lemon grove west of Camarillo for a future university, Bentley-Adler said.
"So what do we do with that?" she said. "We could sell it. But in this market we wouldn't do that well. It's not a good time to sell anything."
Then there is the question of whether it is economically possible to turn the hospital site, nestled in the hills south of Camarillo, into a university campus.
The hospital grounds consist of 85 Spanish-style buildings--including offices, dormitories, classrooms and laboratory--spread out over an area less than 10 miles from the ocean.
The Cal State system successfully transformed the former Ft. Ord Army Base in Monterey Bay into a university, which opened its doors last fall. But the university system received much help from the federal government, which contributed about $130 million in aid to convert old buildings into dormitories, studios and classrooms, officials said.
"The big difference is that the property came with federal money to rehabilitate the facilities," Bentley-Adler said. "We don't know if the state would be willing to give us money to restructure buildings [at the hospital]. We don't even know the condition of the buildings."
Meanwhile, a top official with the state Department of Developmental Services told hospital workers Friday to be prepared to lose their jobs.
Deputy Director Douglas Van Meter said if the Legislature approves Wilson's plan to shut down the hospital, hundreds of employees there could be out of work.
"If the governor's recommendation is approved, we'll be putting together a plan to work out a transition," Van Meter said after the meeting. "That's what we did in Stockton."
State job-placement specialists would help laid-off workers try to find new jobs, Van Meter said.
But talk of job relocation was not popular among workers.
"That's the same thing they told us in Stockton," said one counselor, who did not want his name published.
"I moved down here three months ago because they said it was stable," he said. "The rest of the developmental centers aren't hiring either. I applied at Napa and all they offered me was a limited term."