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SCC master plan calls for $34 million of construction in Jackson, Swain

fr sccplanWhat’s the best way to spend $55 million? As far as the leadership at Southwestern Community College is concerned, the answer is simple — build, build, build until the lengthy checklist returned from its recently completed master plan is all done.

There’s a lot to do, according to the assessment recently done on facilities in Jackson and Swain counties. The price tag for the projects identified in the plan sits at about $34 million, with the list from the 2013 master plan for Macon County bringing the grand total to $55 million. 

“The price tag on the long range plan is pretty high,” said Terry Bell, chairman of SCC’s board of trustees. 

Most significantly, the plan calls for a new $16.3 million health science building on the Jackson campus.

“Health-related fields is a very in-demand profession, so we could actually expand our offerings and the number of individuals that we serve if we have that demand,” Bell said. “We have that demand. We know it exists.” 

The health building is far from being the only future expenditure the plan outlines, however. 

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On the Jackson campus, the 30-year-old Balsam Center is due for renovation, with more space for science classrooms envisioned as programs currently housed in Balsam move to the desired health sciences building. The campus needs a new, more centrally located library, with the existing library renovated to make way for more continuing education space. There’s not enough space for faculty offices. The maintenance department needs a new building. The campus should have better signage and outdoor gathering spaces for students. Over in Swain County, the college operates out of a building originally constructed in 1950. Before even thinking about expanding program space there, the college would need to launch a massive overhaul to bring the building up to code.  

Those line items don’t even touch the to-do list for the Macon campus, determined in a separate master plan completed in 2013. 

Going forward, the challenge will be to figure out what gets priority, what’s sent to the backburner, and how to pay for it all. 

“Nothing is written in stone,” said SCC President Don Tomas when presenting the plan to Jackson commissioners in January. “A master plan is nothing more than a road map to the future.” 

A road map that, at this point, is full of still-hidden twists and turns. The biggest of those? The March 15 referendum vote on whether to approve a statewide bond for $2 billion in spending for secondary education, park, agricultural and infrastructure projects. If passed, SCC would nab $7.1 million to put toward its master plan projects. 

“We have to wait to see in hopes that the bond will pass, at which point in time, should the bond pass, we would get down to the nitty-gritty” of prioritizing the projects, Tomas said. 

For new construction, the bond would require one county dollar for every three dollars in bond funding, with no match required for renovations. That would go a long way toward getting the college started on implementing the plan, but it wouldn’t fund all or even most of the needs and wants listed. And it’s not the only variable in the equation. Capital projects for community colleges are funded by the counties, and there are three of those in SCC’s service area — implementation will depend on the ability and willingness of Swain, Jackson and Macon counties to fund the projects.  


Combining forces?

It could take decades to work through the list. 

“This list of projects that was given to SCC is a true wish list,” said Mark Jones, a member of SCC’s board of trustees appointed by Jackson County Public Schools, who is also a Jackson County commissioner. “It’s a five, 15, 20-year wish list.”

The unfortunate truth, Jones said, is that big projects take big chunks of time to fund and execute, so it could be a long time before some of the more expensive undertakings outlined in the plan — specifically, the health sciences building — come to fruition. 

“We need to act sooner rather than later, but can we do that project with the other projects Jackson County has facing us?” Jones asked, ticking off upcoming needs like new roofs for the public schools, a new animal shelter and a new health department. “Some of those projects are going to have to wait a few years.” 

That’s an undeniable reality, so college leaders are already kicking around ways to think outside of the box and get stuff done sooner. 

One possibility under discussion is combining the college’s need for a health sciences building with the county’s need for a new health department building. 

“You’d have one location and you wouldn’t be duplicating resources unnecessarily,” Tomas said. “It gives students a great learning opportunity because clinical spots and sites sometimes are getting fewer and there needs to be those opportunities for students to gain those clinical experiences.” 

“I don’t know if it’s truly feasible to have the Health Department and SCC in one building or not, but it’s a neat concept,” Jones said. “It seems like it could work.” 

It’s something to look into, but there are a lot of what-ifs. Including, for the county, whether partnering with SCC would really be the best combination project to pursue. Another task on the county’s docket is building a new animal shelter. Animal control is under the county’s health department, so would it make sense to house those two buildings on the same site? And if that were the case, would adding SCC into the mix just make things too complicated? 

“Those balls that are up in the air, they’re all going to have to land in the next couple months because we have to do the next fiscal year budget,” Jones said. 

With old debt being retired and capital requests pouring in from all sides, commissioners have been discussing the possibility of taking out a loan to get the projects done sooner rather than later. But that’s just in the discussion stage right now. 

“Knowing how much money we have available, I can see SCC getting a million and a half for SCC projects for the upcoming budget year,” Jones estimated, though cautioning that he’s just one commissioner out of five. 


Going forward 

The other two counties in SCC’s service area are also in line for capital funding. The master plan for Macon County calls for significant expansion of the Public Safety Training complex, which currently occupies a rather small footprint in a 30-year-old building. 

“We’ve had a request to expand that program, but we can’t expand that program due to the constraints of the space that we’re in,” Bell said. 

The Swain Center building, originally built in 1950, has “numerous issues” and would require a great deal of investment to get it up to code, the master plan said, let alone make actual improvements. 

Going forward, SCC will have to prioritize its requests, and while the plan does break the lengthy Jackson list into stages — the health sciences building and Balsam Center projects together; the new library and renovations of Oaks Hall and Holt Library together; and the new maintenance building and renovations of the firing range and Summit building together — the prioritization process can’t begin in earnest until the bond vote has been taken. 

“There’s a lot of unknown factors yet,” Bell said.



What’s on the list

A master plan to guide the future of Southwestern Community College’s Jackson and Swain campuses was recently completed by Charlotte-based LS3P, with a plan finished in 2013 still in place to map the future for Macon County. 

Needs identified by the most recent plan include:

  • New health sciences building, $16.3 million. A state-of-the-art building of 40,000 to 60,000 square feet that resembles an actual hospital setting would support SCC’s growing health-related offerings. 
  • Balsam Center renovation, $5 million. Address infrastructure issues and add science classrooms in space freed up by health sciences building.
  • New library, $4.7 million. Relocating the library to an Oaks Hall addition would make the facility more central to campus. The concept involves a 5,300-square-foot lower floor and 11,000-square-foot upper floor. 
  • Holt Library renovation, $1 million. Renovate as a continuing education facility with offices, classrooms and a dedicated parking area. 
  • Oaks Hall renovation, $1.8 million. Address infrastructure issues. 
  • Oaks Hall addition, $1 million. Add 24 faculty offices, new toilets, a workroom and three meeting rooms totaling 6,000 square feet. 
  • New maintenance building, $700,000. Replace existing 5,000 square feet of maintenance space with a new, 7,500-square-foot building.
  • Firing range, $140,000. Add 400 square feet of restroom and locker room space. 
  • Summit building renovation, $482,000. Expand welding labs and program areas after moving shipping and receiving to a new maintenance building. Replace heat pump and improve size and accessibility of restrooms. 
  • Signage, $250,000. Identify campus entrances and improve on-campus navigation. 
  • Swain Center infrastructure repairs, $2.2 million. Bring building up to code, which will involve improving accessibility, the mechanical system, roofing and electrical services. 
  • Total: $33.6 million
  • Total with projects from 2013 Macon County master plan: $55 million


Bond support widespread 

In a meeting this week, leaders spanning the spectrum of government, education and infrastructure in Jackson County voiced support for a March 15 referendum question that would approve a $2 billion bond for infrastructure, college, university, agriculture and state park projects. 

“We (North Carolina) will not have any more debt — as strange as it sounds — than we do today because we’re paying things off so quickly,” said David Belcher, chancellor of Western Carolina University. “So in my mind it’s a win-win situation.”

If the bond passed, WCU would receive $110 million for a new natural sciences building, the largest single project included in the entire bond package. In addition, Southwestern Community College would get $7.1 million for capital projects, and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority would have access to a $312.5 million statewide pool of grant funding to help with water and sewer infrastructure projects, much of it to be awarded to rural counties like Jackson. 

“I highly endorse this and encourage everybody to help us pass this,” said Commissioner Charles Elders, the only Republican on the county board. 

County commissioners will likely pass a resolution supporting the bond this week and are encouraging other governing boards in the county to sign on. Aside from the sheer value of the capital projects, said Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat, the bond would prop up the county through the ripple effects of increased employment and spending. 

“The domino effect just multiplies, and I think it’s critical,” McMahan said. 

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