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It’s been three decades since the shooting range now operated by Southwestern Community College first opened, and the college is hoping for some money to address issues that have been mounting since then.

Four donated modular units should help ease a space crunch at the Public Safety Training Center in Macon County, but the fix could be short-lived.

The training center, run by Southwestern Community College, might soon become one of a handful of sites in the country where federal law enforcement officers can get high-level training.

While thousands cycle through every year for basic police, fire and rescue training, demand may be stiffest for a handful of coveted slots in a four-month academy for federal park rangers.

Men and women seeking seasonal, or temporary, law enforcement jobs with the National Park Service train there now. But the college hopes to offer more federal training next year — by increasing the number of academies it holds and adding training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers.

The National Park Service would be the primary beneficiary. Some other federal agencies also could use men and women commissioned through the training center.

“There’s a lot of potential with this federal accreditation,” said Curtis Dowdle, director of the training center. “But we would have to meet a number of policies and regulations, such as instructors who hold certain credentials, equipment requirements, enough square-feet-per-student requirements.

“Record keeping is probably the biggest part — we’d have to house the records on the students forever, and that’s a big space issue,” Dowdle said.

Right now, all training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, headquartered in Glynco, Ga. Dowdle said the federal government estimates having a select number of sites across the nation offer the classes could save taxpayers more than $40,000 per government employee.

Space problems

Macon County Schools donated the modular units to SCC, and county commissioners last week agreed to spend $17,500 from the county’s contingency fund to pay to move them. They were previously used by two of the county’s schools for additional classroom space. Macon County has been building new schools and no longer needs them.

“It services the whole region, even the nation,” Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said of the center.

Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, agreed that the training center plays an important role.

“The center has been very helpful to us,” said Stinnett. “They’ve really made it available.”

In addition to having access to a pool of qualified applicants when hiring, Stinnett said the National Park Service receives a professional boost because rangers working on the Parkway or in the Smokies are sometimes tapped to teach at the training center.

“People who teach something tend to do it better,” he said.

In addition to classrooms, a computer lab and more, the center has a driver-training course, shooting range and a 4,100-square-foot, three-story building used to train fire and rescue workers.

Each modular unit will provide an additional 864 square feet of space to the training center.

Simulators for emergency medical service workers will be set up in one unit. A use-of-force simulator for law enforcement officers will be housed in another, as will exercise equipment. One unit will add general classroom space.

But it’s doubtful the four units will provide adequate room for long. In addition to seeking the federal accreditation required to train fulltime federal law enforcement officers, Dowdle and SCC are considering other expansions.

‘Growing smart’

Two, 30-member academies for training the seasonal federal workers are currently offered. The academy starting in January has a waiting list; 15 men and women already have signed up for the second academy, which isn’t until August of next year. SCC, in response to the demand, is considering holding three academies each year.

Federal Law Enforcement Training Center officials did not respond by press time to an interview request.

“If we grow, we want to grow smart,” Dowdle said, emphasizing the community college’s need to weigh each expansion carefully.

An academy lasts four months. If another one is held, SCC — which under state law cannot operate student housing — will need to find more places for the students to live. The students now rent directly from people in the community.

“We must find more housing, unless we have an investor come forward who wants to put something up,” Dowdle said.

A state-of-the-art firing range is also being considered. This would be an outdoor range similar to one used by the federal government in Glynco. A bullet trap system would collect the lead, protecting both people and the environment. The firing range currently used by SCC is behind the water-treatment plant in Sylva. It has no trap system and just 10 lanes. That’s a problem when the community college is trying to train 30 cadets at a time, Dowdle said.

A $300,000 federal grant awarded to three community colleges will help ready a Western North Carolina workforce for the rapidly growing green technology field.

Some 400 students are expected to enroll in programs supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission grant at Haywood, Southwestern and Tri-County community colleges.

Since 1998, clean energy jobs in North Carolina have grown by over 15 percent, while jobs in other fields have increased by only 6 percent. Officials say focusing on green job training is already a must in preparing students headed into the working world.

“It is incredibly important for the future of our state and country,” said Janet Burnette, interim president at Southwestern Community College.

Donna Tipton-Rogers, Tri-County college’s president, said this particular field was especially relevant with Murphy located close to major auto manufacturers in the South.

“It fits in great,” said Tipton-Rogers.

At a press conference held at Western Carolina University last week, the $300,000 check was officially presented to the Southwestern Planning & Economic Development Commission, which will work with the community colleges to develop the training program.

Rose Johnson, president of HCC, said the ARC money would be put to work as soon as the next semester begins. In all, $794,000 will be invested in the green training initiative, with local sources making up the difference.

The Appalachian Regional Commission works to promote economic development in 13 Appalachian states.

With a persistently high unemployment rate in the area, ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl pointed out the important role of higher education in bringing prosperity here.

“In an economic recession, one point that always comes out is the level of education has a direct impact on the level of income,” said Gohl. “It’s essential for a competitive workforce to be well-trained and well-educated.”

U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler emphasized the importance of not only creating green technology, but also creating the workforce necessary to implement it locally.

“We develop it, we produce it, we sell it — all in America,” said Shuler.

Governor Bev Perdue added that the grant would help bring Western North Carolina jobseekers up to speed.

“The world has morphed,” said Perdue. “We have a really deep and abiding commitment to going green.”

Green funding for colleges

The $300,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant will help three community colleges expand training in green jobs. Here are some ideas on how they plan to use it:

• Haywood Community College plans to use its share of the grant to fund equipment and instruction for low impact development, green building technology and weatherization.

• Southwestern Community College will focus on low impact development, alternative fuels, weatherization and sustainable energy.

• Tri-County Community College will invest its grant on teaching students to work on hybrid and electric vehicles.

As the director of Southwestern Community College’s new Plus 50 program, Michael Rich is rapidly working in the community to get his face and program recognized.

An initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges, Plus 50 focuses on learning, career development and volunteering for people older than 50. In Southwestern’s three-county service area there are more than 30,000 people older than 50.

Rich is eager to appear before groups to discuss the new Plus 50 program and gather input. Call him at SCC’s Cashiers Center at 828.586.4091 ext. 497 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit the Plus 50 blog at http://blogs.southwesterncc.edu/plus50/.

The Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees has settled on a replacement for outgoing President Cecil Groves.

Last week, the board approved the selection of Dr. Richard Collings, president of Wayne State College in Nebraska and a former administrator at Western Carolina University, as the college’s fifth president. His hiring is contingent upon approval of the State Board of Community Colleges next month.

The board arrived at its decision after narrowing the field of candidates to four finalists, a list they elected to keep secret while their final decision was pending. The finalists were interviewed in early June.

Collings served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at Western Carolina University from 1996 to 2004. He kept his house here when moving to Nebraska and rented it out with the intention of returning one day.

“We’d always planned to come back to the community to retire. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to come back and work,” said Collings, who is in his early 60s.

His son lives in Jackson County as well.

Collings has spent the last six years in northeast Nebraska at a four-year college with close ties to a community college system. Wayne State College recently opened a campus that is jointly owned and operated by Northeast Community College.

“When a student comes to that campus, they won’t know the differences between the four-year and two-year school,” Collings said.

Collings has worked closely with community colleges since 1989, and those interactions have accelerated during the last six years with the partnership between Wayne State and Northeast Community College.

His experience aligning the curricula of two systems could prove useful in the relationship between SCC and WCU.

In addition, Collings said his experience working with a rural student body, a neighboring Indian tribe and a strong community college system has prepared him for the job at SCC.

Collings said he has watched developments at SCC closely.

“I’ve seen the great trajectory that SCC has taken with all of the national acclaim and the acclaim from within the community college system,” Collings said. “I knew it was a great institution when I was there.”

Among his other accomplishments at Wayne State, Collings reversed a decade-long enrollment decline, improved graduation and retention rates, and led a successful $20 million capital campaign to commemorate the college’s 100th year in service.

Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, noted that Collings was chosen from a pool of highly qualified national applicants.

“Although our presidential search produced many outstanding candidates, Dr. Collings was chosen because of his impressive background and credentials. We feel his experience in education and knowledge of our service area will greatly benefit the college and the communities we serve,” Burrell wrote in a prepared statement.

The Naturalist's Corner

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