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Despite outdated equipment and facilities that have plagued it for years, UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research is where most of the state’s master cheesemakers have learned how to craft those mouth-watering, award-winning specialty cheeses that have been credited for reinventing Wisconsin’s formidable cheese industry.

If the State Building Commission votes today to approve a $47 million improvement project for the Center for Dairy Research and Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, center director John Lucey believes the sites will finally reach their full potential and give their students even more opportunities to advance and improve the cheese and dairy industries.

There could be “a massive impetus for further growth of high-quality specialty cheese in the state,” Lucey said.

There also will be space to study how to improve cultured products such as yogurt and other high-value dairy byproducts, including whey proteins, that could provide a huge boost to the state’s dairy exports.

If approved, the project to renovate the dairy plant inside Babcock Hall on Linden Drive and move the Center for Dairy Research out of the existing building and to a new three-story addition attached to the hall will begin five years later than expected, but it’s worth the wait, Lucey said.

“I know a lot of people would have loved to have (the addition) completed already — include me in that group,” he said. “But I think we have used the time well to make sure we will be getting the right type of facility. We are only going to do this once, so we want to do it well.”

The project was delayed after school officials learned that its $34 million budget set in 2013 fell short of what was needed to complete it, Lucey said. They erred by not doing a comprehensive enough plan to accurately forecast the cost to modernize a dairy plant, teaching and research space in a building that had not been renovated since it was built in the 1950s and add complicated, state-of-the-art equipment to the Center for Dairy Research addition, Lucey said.

“This is not like your standard classroom or office building,” he said. “It’s tricky.”

The new plan includes improvements for the dairy plant that are necessary for it to meet state health code standards and regulations. Documents provided to the State Building Commission say the plant is in danger of being closed by regulators in the near future if its deficiencies are not corrected. There are also functional problems that compromise health and safety.

“We don’t think people are at risk today because we are inspected and we’ve never had a problem that would result in a foodborne illness,” said Kathryn VandenBosch, dean of UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. “But it could be a problem for the future if we were to have continued (without making the changes).”

As for the Center for Dairy Research addition, the new plan reduced its size but didn’t cut back on any of the key features, including modernized equipment needed for ripening specialty cheeses, Lucey said. The architects also hired specialized industry consultants to help them with the placement of that equipment.

The price tag jumped nearly $13 million after the rebidding process was completed, Lucey said. He blamed inflation for some of the cost increase.

He also believes that more building projects have popped up due to the improving economy over the past five years so there is less competition — and fewer bidding wars that lower costs — among builders.

School officials told the UW Board of Regents prior to its approval of the project last week that it would be funded, in part, by $22.2 million from the state and $6.3 million in federal funds through the university. Private funding — most of it coming from the dairy industry — will pay for the rest.

“We’re very excited about it as are all of our industry partners who look at this as an investment,” VandenBosch said. “So that’s how we were able to raise the funds because they felt that this would help us advance their businesses and solve problems and come up with new recipes and explore new things. It has been doing that for quite some time.”

If the plan is approved today, construction will begin this summer and the project is expected to be finished in 2020, VandenBosch said.

Lucey, who is also a UW-Madison food science professor, can’t wait to see his dreams for the facility become reality.

The Center for Dairy Research will include an auditorium that can seat nearly 100 students taking short courses in the master cheesemaker program. Equally as important, labs and kitchens located next to the auditorium will be available to students right after the class to test new theories or concoctions, Lucey said. If they wish, they can continue working with projects at the facility and get expert opinions until they are finished.

That hasn’t been possible under the current setup. Some specialty cheeses made famous by master cheesemakers like Chris Roelli, of Shullsburg, were created at the Center for Dairy Research facility but were moved because it lacked the specialized equipment needed to complete the process.

“We’re very happy that we are going to get a facility that was not rushed through in the planning process and wouldn’t meet our very high goals for a really state-of-the-art specialty cheese area. Now we have nine rooms to create any kind of specialty cheese we can dream of,” Lucey said.

Some parts of Babcock Hall won’t change, according to VandenBosch. The walkway to a window where workers in the dairy plant can be observed — a popular site for school groups — will remain open during construction.

Also, the dairy store at the front of the building will stay open so students and others can pick up some famous Babcock Hall ice cream, bottled milk, cheese, coffee or a sandwich. Trip Advisor rates its ice cream as Madison’s No. 1 dessert.

After the renovation is complete, Babcock Hall will sell one more key dairy item. With a hint of pride in her voice, VandenBosch said, “Babcock butter will be available for the first time.”

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.