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Lawmaker casts doubt on Martinsburg, W.Va., campus

July 26, 2000

Lawmaker casts doubt on Martinsburg, W.Va., campus



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


With considerable fanfare, West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood, Berkeley County business and civic leaders and elected officials last week announced plans to transfer Shepherd College's community and technical college to the abandoned Blue Ridge Outlet Center in downtown Martinsburg.

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Those plans could meet a chilly reception in the state Senate and elsewhere unless a study is done and public hearings are held, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, and others said.

Craigo said last week's tentative announcement that the Senate might pump $100,000 into the project was premature without a study that he said must include public meetings.

Higher education is now under greater scrutiny in West Virginia. The Legislature approved - and Underwood signed - Senate Bill 653 during the 2000 regular session, setting up a new review process for the state's higher education framework. The bill was a direct result of an outside consultant's study intended to examine current higher education policy.

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The new process includes the establishment of a Higher Education Policy Commission, a new Higher Education Interim Governing Board and also a new joint commission for vocational-technical education.

"I would be surprised if my committee would vote for this," Craigo said of the tentative commitment announced last week by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson. "I think Shepherd is going to make a critical, critical mistake if they attempt to bypass the process."

Officials believe that moving the college will provide more educational opportunities to more people in the Eastern Panhandle.

Not everyone agrees that Blue Ridge is the best site for a community and technical college. Some want it in downtown Martinsburg, and others say it should be in Morgan County.

Shepherd College President Dave Dunlop stood by the Blue Ridge site, although he acknowledged no outside study had been done to back up that belief.

"Did we spend a lot of money on an expensive consultant to come in and do this? No," Dunlop said. "Did we ask our people internally who we rely on for their expertise to tell us what they thought? Yes.

"There was no formal study done that we could release to the public. But we did look at it from a common sense point of view," he said.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, called that the "Field of Dreams approach - build it and they will come. That ought not to be how we make good public policy."

He said the decision appears to have been made through a combination of "gut feeling" and political pressure.

"We want to move quickly," Unger said. "But we don't want to circumvent the process, to try override our system of checks and balances. We owe it to the taxpayers. It's their college."

State Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said Shepherd has done all the studies necessary.

"This has been in (Shepherd's) master plan to move to Martinsburg since 1996," Doyle said. "It is obvious that this is the best location for many reasons. It is the perfect learning environment."

Rick Shearer, newly appointed member of the Policy Commission from Morgan County, said a study of the alternatives would be helpful. The Morgan County Commissioners have called for public meetings to be held in the three Eastern Panhandle counties before a decision is made.

"I don't know, in all honesty, how final that decision is" to relocate to Blue Ridge, said Shearer, president and chief operating officer of U.S. Silica in Berkeley Springs.

He said "a study that will confirm what is in the best interest of the people of the Eastern Panhandle would be beneficial."

Unger and Craigo said they believe college officials may be trying to use the uncertainty of the transition to get what they want approved with little oversight.

"It almost seems that their goal in life is to get grandfathered in, to get in under the wire," Craigo said.

"It looks like they are trying to slip this in under the transition period," Unger said.

"We're not trying to sneak anything by anybody," Dunlop said. "The Blue Ridge was not my starting point. We sort of backed into the Blue Ridge center."

Dunlop said his goal is to find the best site for the college in order to relieve overcrowding at the Shepherdstown school, alleviate parking concerns and begin meeting the one-year mandate of the new law to develop programs and partnerships with business to train a work force.

He said he plans to take advice from the new state Interim Governing Board about how to proceed.

Dunlop said Berkeley Plaza and the old Lowe's building were considered and rejected because of plans for the new W.Va. 9 bypass. The James Rumsey Technical Institute was considered, but Dunlop said he concluded the community college would not have its own identity there.

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