After months of debate, Haywood Community College leaders emerged victorious this week in their quest to build a $10.3 million building where craft industries will be taught.
From weaving to pottery to woodworking, the new building will be a showcase for the college and a centerpiece for the vibrant arts and crafts community in Western North Carolina.
Haywood County commissioners had final say on whether the college could move forward, but for months they have been playing hardball over the building’s price tag. Ultimately, the commissioners approved the building Monday in a 4 to 1 vote.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the lone dissenting vote, but the other commissioners made it clear their support was tempered.
HCC President Rose Johnson said she is thankful the commissioners approved the project and the college can move forward with construction. The process was far more controversial than Johnson likely anticipated, however. A new craft building had long been the college’s top construction priority — since before Johnson became president.
“There was no way I could foresee how complicated it was going to be,” Johnson said.
Ultimately what convinced commissioners was unanimous backing by the college board of trustees itself. Until recently, the college trustees had been split on various aspects of the project, from the total building price tag to solar energy features. But last week, on the eve of a final vote by the county, the trustees convened and unanimously endorsed the project.
“They wanted to go to the commissioners with a unified vote,” Johnson said.
Mark Bumgarner, chairman of the HCC board, admits the move was critical. Commissioners said as much as well.
“If you had come in here today and it was still a 6-5 decision, I would be uncomfortable that you didn’t have a stronger consensus,” said Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick. “I don’t want to be in the position as a commissioner to stop a project another board wants to go forward with. If they are all in consensus now with the project, I would feel comfortable approving it, but not because I am sold on it completely.”
“Now that you have a consensus I feel a lot better,” agreed Commissioner Bill Upton.
The college has trimmed nearly $1 million from the project over the past month. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring the price tag any lower than before. Bids from contractors came in higher than architects had estimated, forcing the college to cut elements of the building just to hold the line on the cost.
The higher-than-expected estimates came as a shock to both the college and commissioners. The depressed economy has, in most cases, led to lower building costs as contractors compete for limited work.
“This is the first project I have heard of in two or three years that came in above the estimated cost,” Ensley said.
Ensley said the reason the college had such high bids was the cutting-edge nature of the design. Ensley said he heard from contractors who either didn’t bid at all or who bid high because some eco-components of the building were unfamiliar.
Commissioners didn’t pass up one last chance to lecture college leaders over the price tag before signing off on the project. The building will be paid for out of a special quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters two years ago. The county had pledged to dedicate revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax to community college construction if voters would approve it.
But Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said the county is ultimately on the hook for the loan.
“If something happened to the sales tax and it went south, that means the county would have to pick it up,” Curtis said. Curtis said the county doesn’t want to have to raise taxes in the future due to poor financial planning today.
Swanger warned the college not to bank on the special pot of sales tax money as being their own forever.
“I think it is important that all of us go into this with our eyes wide open,” Swanger said.
A decade from now, there will be a different cast of characters, with different priorities and campaign pledges than today’s board, Swanger said. While today’s commissioners pledged to devote the special sales tax to the college, it could easily be co-opted by a future board for a different use, he said.
It makes it all the more critical that the college be certain they want to burn through the lion’s share of the money on this one building, Swanger said.
Commissioners told the college not to come back later asking for more money for other projects.
“You know the lack of funds we have for projects for the community college outside this pool of money,” Kirkpatrick said.
When the recession hit, the county cut the building maintenance budget for the college by two-thirds. Commissioners said it could be a long time before that maintenance budget is restored. That means the college may need to dip into the special pot of sales tax money for regular maintenance.
When commissioners first broached that possibility earlier this year, supporters of the college came out in force to protest what they saw as commissioners reneging on their earlier promise to devote the sales tax money to campus expansion and new construction.
But times are tough, Ensley said.