FAIRFIELD — The buildings that once housed General Electric’s hilltop Fairfield headquarters will retain the same modern facades that greeted company employees as they milled in for a day of work when, soon, students and professors rush about the halls.

The lobbies too will remain intact — aside from a Sacred Heart University logo replacing GE’s icon. But turning down the halls, a computing school, business offices and eventually a business incubator-type program will occupy what is currently office space, following renovations.

Nearby, the site’s hotel will keep hosting guests, run by the university as part of a new hospitality program.

SHU’s vision for the 66-acre GE campus, which it agreed to purchase on Nov. 21 for $31.5 million, is still taking shape. But a need for more space to accommodate rising enrollment and program additions already in motion made the property an attractive buy for the school.

The motivating forces offer a glimpse at how the property will be used after its transformation from corporate headquarters to college campus.

“At first we said no. We weren’t interested,” said Michael J. Kinney, senior vice president for finance and administration. “Then we went up and took a look.”

Educational vision

What some of the university’s top leadership found on a visit was the property had buildings that could satisfy its need for more classroom space and parking — at a price tag several million less than the estimated cost of new construction.

Kinney tied the need for more space to the university’s current growth. He said SHU has upped its undergraduate population by about 1,400 students over the past four to five years, with trustee approval to keep expanding.

SHU currently enrolls a total of 8,235 students, more than 5,000 of whom are undergraduates, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 assessment.

“Some years in the future, probably a little past my lifetime here, I think you’re looking at a combination of undergraduate and graduate of 10,000,” Kinney said. He expects graduate growth to be drawn more locally, but the university is working to expand its undergraduate reach in southern and southwestern states.

The G.E. property also hosts a 28-room hotel. SHU had been in the process of launching a hospitality program and plans to use the facility as part its curriculum, combined with the Great River Golf Club’s restaurant and golf course.

The university bought the Milford club property last year and had been developing the hospitality program around the 150-acre purchase. Kinney estimated the program will launch in about a year.

Along a similar timeline, SHU will not renew its leases for facilities in Trumbull next December, moving offices and classes in the rented spaces to the former G.E. site or current campus space freed up from the addition.

The School of Computing, launched this fall, SHU’s College of Education and some business offices will be among programs moved to the new section of campus. The Jack Welch College of Business — having already outgrown a new facility built to house the school two years ago — may also use some of the new space, Kinney said.

On the site, a business incubator-type program to offer space and aid for start-up businesses to grow is also in SHU’s future vision, though its formation could be several months or years down the road.

“It’s not your old, just going to school type of activities,” Kinney said. “This will be robust, it will be exciting and a lot of activity will take place up there.”

Town impact

With SHU’s transformation of the former corporate campus still in its early stages town officials have looked at a more immediate concern: the $1.5 million in tax revenue from the site.

One aspect officials discussed the day after the sale’s announcement was that for-profit businesses on the site would still pay Fairfield property taxes, but the possibility that a student-run hotel operating as part of an educational program might be exempt.

Kinney said in a later interview that SHU will own the site’s hotel and will not contract with a hotel chain.

Outside of the tax bill, rising student enrollment could also have an economic impact on the town. Students and university visitors spend money locally in Fairfield, Bridgeport and other surrounding towns, and Kinney estimated the related boost for the local economy to grow significantly in the coming years.

The town’s Office of Community and Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart said both SHU and nearby Fairfield University are significant local employers and contribute to the local economy.

“We’re fortunate to have two universities of this caliber located in a town this size,” Barnhart said. “Part of our challenge is to harness the talent that’s there and to leverage that in a way to help grow the local economy.”

He called the universities a source of talent for the area’s labor pool and said a college program, such as SHU’s freshly-launched computing school, could help grow related aspects of the town’s economy.

“The potential is clear,” he said.

SHU and town officials are currently meeting on a weekly basis to discuss the relationship between the university and Town of Fairfield, First Selectman Mike Tetreau said. With the university’s exact plans for its 66 new acres still unfolding, the town intends to stay in close communication.

“Sacred Heart has been a good neighbor,” Tetreau said. “We want that to continue. That’s why we’re talking with them as we are.”

Lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16