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American Public University, Charles Town good for each other

July 28, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- When the American Public University System came to Charles Town in 2003, it started in one building.

Now the online school - which boasts of having thousands of students around the world - is either operating in or getting ready to occupy 10 buildings in town.

It has taken over a former restaurant building on Washington Street, has offices scattered across the second story of United Bank about a block away and runs its registrar's office and admissions offices from two other buildings on Washington Street in the center of town.

The school has academic offices in two houses near each other on Congress Street; one of the leased homes is behind the former Jefferson County Magistrate Court building, which the school took over and unveiled during a large ceremony in 2006.

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American Public University System purchased the old magistrate court from the Jefferson County Commission for $205,000 and pumped $1.3 million into the building in an extensive renovation to provide more room for a growing staff.

Last fall, the school purchased a former Acme grocery store building along South George Street that had been used by AB&C Group Inc. The school bought the building for a little more than $1 million and will spend about that much in renovations to make it a new information technology facility, said school President and Chief Executive Officer Wallace E. Boston Jr.

Like this summer's flowers, American Public University System signs are popping up on properties around town to the delight of economic development and government officials.

"They've certainly exceeded my expectations," said Jane Peters, executive director of the Jefferson County Development Authority, which works to draw new business to the county.

Peters said parking availability has become an issue in town as the school has grown, but she considered that a growing pain.

"I think they've been great for downtown. I think that's a business most downtowns would want to have," Peters said.

Before coming to Charles Town, American Public University System was in Manassas, Va. School officials decided to leave Manassas because the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools was not prepared to accredit an online university, Boston said.

Because moving to the Charles Town area would allow the school to seek accreditation with the North Central Association as an online university, the school acquired the former Knott Nursing Home at 115 W. Congress St. as its first Charles Town location, Boston said.

When the university opened new staff offices in the old magistrate court building, the school had 13,000 students worldwide.

Now enrollment has more than doubled to more than 30,000 students and its local staff has grown from 80 when it first moved to town to 185, Boston said. The school still has a Manassas office, where about 160 employees do marketing and student services, and student advisory work.

American Public University System offers associate, bachelor's and master's degree programs and specializes in areas like military, law enforcement, fire and emergency management, and national security.

The school's students are typically adults who already have jobs and families, and the online courses make it convenient to study at their own pace, Boston said.

Many universities in the country offer classes online but they don't offer the number of degree programs - 73 - that American Public University System does, Boston said.

For comparison purposes, West Virginia University offers nine degree programs online, Boston said.

"WVU really wants you to go there in person," Boston said.

The growth of American Public University System keeps the school constantly looking for space downtown.

The school's leased space on the second floor of United Bank next to Shu Chen restaurant contains offices filled with information-technology workers. Although the IT operations will eventually be moved to the former AB&C building around December, Boston said the school will keep the bank offices for needed space.

The school began leasing the former Avanti Ristorante building at 119 Washington St. about a year ago and started an extensive renovation, including office redesign, new air-conditioning and heating systems, electric re-wiring, installation of fiber optics and security systems, Boston said.

The former restaurant building gave the school about 10,000 square feet to consolidate its finance department, which had been scattered in other buildings, Boston said.

Boston led an impromptu tour of the school's downtown buildings on a recent sunny afternoon. He points out some buildings and leads a reporter down corridors of offices in others.

Is this efficient?

"No, it's not efficient," Boston responds. "But we started in downtown Charles Town and we're trying to stay committed to it," he says.

Whenever discussions begin about whether there will be enough space downtown for the school, someone usually comes forth and offers land somewhere else in the county, Boston said.

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