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HCC breaks ground on new craft building

Dominic Cruz is counting down the days to graduation in May, when he will put his skills both as a woodworker and entrepreneur to work as he launches his dream career building handmade furniture.

Cruz moved to the region from Florida to attend the Creative Arts Program at Haywood Community College, where he says he learned everything he need to know to make a go of his venture.

“That’s what’s really, really great about this program,” Cruz said. “It doesn’t just teach you the skills and techniques, they have a ton of business classes so you are ready to succeed when you come out. It’s not just ‘here’s how you put something together.’”

That type of reputation — one that draws students from across the country — is rare for a two-year community college. But at HCC, the nationally renowned craft program has long had that kind of draw. The program has produced expert weavers, potters, glassblowers, jewelers and woodworkers considered among the best in their professions.

“I specifically sought out this college because people told me what a great program it was,” said Sherri Bell, who is originally from Alabama. “We have some really, really talented teachers.”

HCC broke ground last week on a new creative arts building. It will replace the cramped and outdated quarters that have housed the program for more than 30 years. The new building will help HCC maintain its status in the craft world and elevate awareness of the college in general, said HCC President Rose Johnson.

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While some HCC graduates make a full-time living in the craft industry, for many like Bell, who works at a restaurant in Asheville, their craft will provide supplemental income and afford a higher quality of life.

“The presence of a creative workforce is associated with rising household incomes,” said Terry Gess, head of the Creative Arts Program at HCC. The craft industry has an economic impact of $206 million in Western North Carolina, according to a study by Handmade in America.

That’s good news to Richard Hughes, who hopes his budding artistic talents as a jeweler will help him earn enough to get off disability.

“I was trying to do something to improve my standing and get off the government nickel. I would rather be a productive member of society, so I am giving it my best shot,” Hughes said.

HCC’s craft program is inexpensive compared to private craft institutions, said Sarah Canale, who is in the jewelry program.

“I think it is impressive a community college can offer a quality craft program with a degree that’s affordable. It’s really unique,” Canale said.

The high demand among students to get in to HCC’s craft program leads to a perpetual waiting list.

“Some students have given up because there wasn’t space for them,” said HCC President Rose Johnson.

The new creative arts building will allow the college to increase enrollment, Johnson said. But not just for fulltime students. Johnson said she is equally excited about the having a bigger and better facility to serve the hundreds of people who do crafts as a hobby and take courses here and there as continuing education without pursuing degrees.

“It will certainly expand what we are able to do,” Brian Warst, a woodworking instructor, said of the new building.

The new building reflects a commitment to the craft industry, both by the college and the community, said Terry Gess, head of the Creative Arts Program at HCC.

“Over the decades, Western North Carolina has grown into a nationally known crossroads for crafts,” Gess said. “We look forward to our prosperous future in the creative arts.”

The $10.2 million creative arts building will be paid for with revenue from a special a quarter-cent sales tax levied in Haywood County for the sole purpose of construction and expansion at HCC.

Counties normally can’t impose sales taxes of their own accord. But in 2007, the state agreed to let counties enact a quarter cent sales tax if it passed muster with voters.

Haywood County promptly took the state up on the offer with HCC leading the charge. Voters were promised the money would be spent on building at HCC — something that would otherwise have to come from the county’s general coffers.

“We as a community owe a great gratitude to the voters of Haywood County of passing the quarter-cent sales tax,” said Neal Ensley, a member of the HCC board.

Haywood County Commissioner Bill Upton said it is a good thing the college jumped quickly.

“If we had to vote today on a quarter-cent sales tax, I don’t believe it would make it, so I appreciate the foresight of the Haywood Community College Board in getting this done,” Upton said.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is hoping to follow in HCCs footsteps. Buncombe voters will be asked on the ballot this fall to support a quarter-cent sales tax to fund new buildings for AB Tech.

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