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Arts building debate focuses on cost, green technology, and importance of craft industry

A crowd of 50 Haywood Community College supporters turned out Monday at a two-and-a-half hour public hearing to urge county commissioners to back a $10.3 million project to build a new Creative Arts building.

Artists, gallery owners, craft instructors and students voiced support for their industry and a flagship building they say will put Haywood County and the college at the center of a prosperous economic sector.

“They come to us to learn a technical skill. They go out in to the community, they start businesses, they create jobs and put money back into the economy,” said Laura Leatherwood, director of Community and Economic Development at HCC.

The craft industry has a $206 million annual economic impact in WNC, according to a 2007 study by Handmade in America, a regional nonprofit that supports mountain arts and crafts.

Only a few spoke against the project, all of them regulars at county commissioner meetings who routinely oppose county projects due to their cost.

Bruce Gardener, a fiscal conservative who has been a vocal critic of county spending, said moving forward with new construction of this caliber is unwise given the economic crisis in the country.

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He also questioned whether craftspeople can make a decent wage on which to raise a family. Gardener said training in medical and computer fields would give students more lucrative future than the craft industry.

David Nestler, a woodworking student at HCC, countered the claim.

“I do make enough money to support a family, and I plan on doing that with this career,” Nestler said.

Trades housed in the new building include woodworking, jewelry making and stained glass, pottery, film production and fiber arts like weaving and dying.

The building will serve an estimated 1,110 students.

Ted Carr, another critic of the project’s price tag, said few of the craft students will graduate to become wage-earners in their field. Most who use the facility will be community members taking a craft course here and there as a hobby rather than full-time students.

Suzanne Gerdandt, the owner of Textures Gallery on Main Street in Waynesville, said that the impact of the craft industry should not be downplayed. She said 20 percent of the sales in her gallery are pieces by HCC students and instructors.

“The professional crafts program is an absolute gem,” Gerdandt said.

The craft program at HCC has a national reputation, but eventually the ramshackle nature of the existing creative arts facility will hurt the college’s ability to attract top-notch faculty and students, according to Margaret Studenc, an instructor at HCC.

A state-of-the-art building, on the other hand would “paint a big bulls eye of desirability on Haywood County.”

“Let’s build something of which we can be proud,” Studenc said.

Susan Roberts, another HCC instructor, said it is more than just an expensive building.

“It is a building that will inspire and facilitate learning,” Roberts said.

“It will be source of pride for the people of Haywood County,” added Terry Gess, chair of the creative arts program.

Back to the drawing board?

Monroe Miller, another critic of the cost, said college leaders have misled the public and commissioners about the project, particularly the eco-features, which many accuse of driving up the building’s cost.

“Send this project back to the drawing board,” Miller told commissioners.

Kirkwood Callahan agreed.

“I think this facility is too big. We need to go back to the drawing board. We need to spend fewer dollars to achieve our objective here,” Callahan said.

But Mark Bumgarner, chairman of the HCC board of trustees, said the board has cut costs where it can already.

“We have taken this effort very, very seriously,” Bumgarner said. “We feel like we have done our due diligence. We have studied cost estimates. We have tried to trim those. We have worked diligently to accomplish a price that would be minimal.”

The square foot construction costs are higher than other buildings undertaken in the county in recent years — higher than the new jail, the new courthouse and new schools.

But the architect, Michael Nicklas with Innovative Design in Raleigh, said critics have misrepresented the construction costs.

The total project cost of $10.3 million includes demolition of the dilapidated craft building on the site today and paving a new parking lot and road, which Nicklas said shouldn’t be factored into construction costs. Meanwhile, critics use a smaller building size of only 36,000 square feet rather than the more accurate number of 41,000 square feet, leaving out instructional space that houses kilns and certain woodworking components simply because it is not heated space, Nicklas said.

Using an inflated project cost on one hand and deflated square footage on the other hand results in a higher square foot construction cost.

As a result, critics claim the building has square foot construction costs of $290, compared to supporters who claim it is closer to $220 a square foot.

Regardless, Nicklas said it is unfair to compare the construction costs for this building to that of a typical building.

“This building is unique. It has a lot of heavy equipment and lot of heavy loads and lot of ventilation issues,” Nicklas said. “You don’t have these things in a regular school building. And yeah, it adds cost to it, but there is no way around it.”

For example, woodworking areas need ventilation due to dust and odors from stains. Jewelry making likewise uses potent chemicals that require ventilation. And high-heat kilns require industrial-grade firewalls.

Bids now in

Both sides were holding out hope that construction bids would come low and render the debate over the building’s price tag moot.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The lowest bid was $9.3 million, which is actually $100,000 over what architects had estimated, and well above the figure that would have brought an end to the dispute.

“I am very disappointed by that because construction costs are really low right now,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.

“I’m disappointed, too,” Nicklas said.

Nicklas said he plans to pore over the blueprints with the lowest bidding contractor in hopes of find at least half a million in savings.

County commissioners must ultimately agree to the building’s price tag. Money to pay for the new building will come from a special quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters two years ago for the sole purpose of funding improvements on the HCC campus. County commissioners have questioned the wisdom of devoting nearly all the sales tax revenue for the next 15 years on one project when there are other construction and renovation needs on campus.

County commissioners did not indicate at the public hearing when they plan to vote on the project. The college hopes to award the bid and break ground this fall.

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