Blue Ridge community college eyes expansion

February 18, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Pressed for space by an expanding enrollment, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College President Peter Checkovich said Friday that leaders of the school hope to have a second building in Martinsburg open for students by 2009.

"It's doable," Checkovich said.

Whether funding is approved by lawmakers this year to help the school expand remains to be seen, but the West Virginia Community & Technical College System's fastest growing school might get a second campus more quickly than 2009 if legislation introduced last week is enacted.

Sponsored by four Senate Education Committee members, including the panel's chairman, vice chairman and Sen. John Unger, Senate Bill 604 proposes Eastern West Virginia Community & Technical College in Moorefield, W.Va., merge with Blue Ridge CTC and become the school's Potomac Highlands Campus on July 1, 2007.

Unger, D-Berkeley, said Friday he believes the bill has legs and could pass because it would eliminate administration costs that could be reinvested into programs at the branch campus. Introduced Thursday, the legislation was referred to the Senate Education Committee, and also must clear the Finance Committee before a floor vote, then to the House of Delegates for consideration.


"We need to unite (the eastern West Virginia counties)," Unger said. "We do have common challenges."

Unger said the merger also would restore a plan to establish a branch campus instead of the new school that now-former House Finance Committee chairman Harold Michael, D-Hardy, had created with a $2 million appropriation.

"We got a little sidetracked," Unger said. "This (merger) will save money and be more efficient."

As for Blue Ridge CTC's crunch for space, Unger said a proposed $3 million allocation by the Legislature to help the college purchase property for expansion was in the discussion phase, and no appropriation had been introduced as of Friday.

"We got a long way to go to get it," Unger said of the money.

Checkovich said Friday that the money could help the college purchase a vacant shopping center in the 500 block of South Raleigh Street, which is a block from the school's current location in the first floor of the Berkeley County government's Dunn Building. But the school's leader for the last 13 years also noted the college would need more than $10 million to make the expansion a reality as part of a phased plan.

"We'd like to secure that property pretty soon," Checkovich said, noting the lobbying efforts with lawmakers and James Skidmore, the CTC system's chancellor. Checkovich said the college's Board of Governors had not prepared a short list of other possible locations for expansion, and are waiting until the end of the first session of the 78th Legislature in March to see what happens, he said.

Checkovich said the school's evening classes practically take up all available space in the Dunn Building, and space for staff is at a premium, too. The school's enrollment - now nearing a head count of 2,000 students - jumped by about 50 percent in the last two years, Checkovich said. None of the state's nine other community and technical colleges realized a double-digit percentage growth in enrollment between the early fall of 2005 and 2006, according to data Checkovich made available Friday. Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College's enrollment decreased by about 13 percent.

Given the challenge that lies ahead just to get a state allocation to help purchase the shopping center, Unger said he is encouraging the college to explore possible partnerships with the private sector and other public entities, such as the City of Martinsburg and the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board, to help the expansion plan become a reality.

The Farmland Protection Board and city leaders in December 2005 combined resources to purchase and place a conservation easement on the historic Boydville estate, a 13-acre South Queen Street property that adjoins the vacant shopping center the college would like to purchase.

"I think we can do something really good there," said Unger, who suggested the 1812 Boydville manor house could bolster the college's culinary arts program, accommodate conferences or simply provide an identity and green space for the school, Unger suggested.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to support whatever they're trying to do," Unger said. "I'm not so much interested in the ideas, so long as they explore the ideas. Let's explore them and let's do something great for our community."

Lavonne Paden, executive director of the Farmland Protection Board, last week welcomed a possible partnership with the college, and believes there is realistic potential for private investment to spur the college's expansion forward.

"To me it seems like a natural fit ... if these two properties were incorporated," Paden said. "I like to think big. If you don't think big, you won't get any place."

When asked about the concept of making Boydville part of the college, Checkovich said school leaders were "open for discussion."

"I think I need to take guidance from my board (of governors) on that particular idea," Checkovich said. "If it increases tuition and fees, we're not interested."

The Boydville estate was acquired for $2.5 million, thanks to a $1 million allocation by the Martinsburg City Council and $1.5 million in taxes collected from real estate transfers or sales of property in Berkeley County and the municipalities of Martinsburg and Hedgesville, W.Va. Paden was unable to say how much real estate transfer tax revenue had been generated per government jurisdiction, but dismissed any lingering criticism of the purchase of the historic property.

"They can say all they want, but it's done," Paden said.

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