Montana State University has won a federal economic stimulus grant that will make possible a $17 million renovation of the aging Cooley Lab, where scientists and students work on microbiology and biomedical research.

"We're really excited about being able to do this project," Tom McCoy, MSU vice president for research, said Monday. "This is huge for biomedical research. ... It's been a long time coming."

The Montana Board of Regents will vote Wednesday during a phone conference meeting on whether to authorize the $17 million renovation. It would then need consent from Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The regents and governor have approved smaller renovations plans for Cooley twice before.

Cooley, built in 1960, hasn't had a major upgrade in 50 years and has $6.7 million worth of deferred maintenance, McCoy said. Lab cabinets and countertops are old, heating and ventilation systems are inadequate, the building doesn't meet earthquake codes, and the elevator for handicapped access is not up to current standards.

The plan is to gut the building and completely modernize the labs so that it's like a new building inside. Cooley also would be renovated with new windows and other features to meet LEED "silver" certification for energy efficiency and green construction.

Earlier plans called for fixing up just two of Cooley's five floors. Twice the project was approved, and construction plans were drafted. But by 2008 construction costs had skyrocketed during Bozeman's building boom. MSU then either had to come up with an additional $4 million that "we didn't have," McCoy said, or scrap the project. Then-President Geoff Gamble canceled it, rather than take on more debt.

"We're hoping the third time is definitely the charm," McCoy said.

Last year, as part of the federal economic stimulus bill, Congress funneled $10 billion to the National Institutes of Health. It set aside, for the first time in years, $1 billion for construction.

"They were looking for shovel-ready projects," said Paula Lutz, dean of the College of Letters and Science. "We decided to go for it."

MSU applied a year ago, proposing to use plans for the two-floor renovation for the entire building. Finally on March 18, NIH said yes, awarding a grant of nearly $14.9 million, 90 percent of it from stimulus money, to renovate all of Cooley Lab.

"I was very, very excited," Lutz said.

"It's very difficult for university facilities to get brick-and-mortar funding of this type," McCoy said.

Stimulus money is intended to give the crippled economy a quick shot in the arm. McCoy said he thinks there will be a significant number of construction jobs during the 18-month renovation.

Upgrading Cooley could also help Montana's economy in the future, McCoy said. A newer building will help recruit and keep first-rate faculty, expand biomedical research and promote new start-up companies.

Cooley's labs do research and teaching on microbiology, cell biology and neuroscience, bioinformatics, genomics and proteomics. Graduate students, undergrads and medical students in the WWAMI doctor-training program also learn there, Lutz said.

Students trained in such cutting-edge techniques as DNA sequencing, Lutz said, "are at a premium when they got into the workforce."

If the NIH approves MSU's plans, bids should be sought in the fall, and construction would begin around the end of the year. MSU has a two-year deadline of March 2012 to get it finished.

Some of Cooley's staff will be moved to the temporary modular buildings that now house chemistry classes while Gaines Hall's $30 million renovation is being finished.

The renovation will be paid for with the new $14.89 million NIH grant, plus $732,000 in other NIH funds, $70,720 in overhead money from MSU research grants, and a $1.3 million state loan, which will be repaid with "other lawful purpose funds" --income from dorm, food service and similar MSU operations that's not already earmarked for debt payments.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.