New building crowns SCC campus in Sylva
Southwestern Community College officially dedicated a new $8.8 million building on its main campus in Sylva last week. The building was built with a majority of state money but also a large contribution by Jackson County.
SCC seeks county dollars for commons area, restaurant
The idea of a restaurant and a commons area where students could meet and eat sounds like a good one to Angie Stanley, a student in Southwestern Community College’s medical respiratory program.
“That really would be nice,” the Sylva resident said. “A lot of people have to leave campus to eat lunch.”
When Stanley packs her lunch, which she often does when there won’t be time to leave campus between classes, she’s forced to eat in a classroom somewhere. That’s because there’s few gathering places for students to congregate.
SCC leaders want to change that by building a central quad, typical of most university campuses, but less so for community colleges. A quad is in the works as part of the new $8 million Burrell Building under construction. It will house a new bookstore plus additional academic and administrative space. It is scheduled to open in August.
But to fully flush out the concept of the quad, SCC hopes to add a commons area to the plan that could serve as a gathering point.
Campus leaders have asked Jackson County commissioners for $580,000 to build a commons area, along with an on-campus restaurant, said SCC President Donald Tomas.
“This would be an extension of the Burrell building, right in the center of campus,” Tomas said.
That sounded good to electrical engineering major Kenny Pleskach.
“I bring my own lunch probably 95 percent of the time, but yeah it would be a cool thing to have a place to eat your lunch,” Pleskatch said, adding that he currently hangs out in one of several gazebos sprinkled about campus.
Money for a quad, but not a commons area and restaurant, is included in the $8 million cost of the Burrell building.
Janet Burnette, a vice president at the college, said the college would lease out the restaurant space to a restaurant entity such as Subway or something similar.
Student questionnaires and surveys have consistently shown food service — or lack thereof — is their top concern on campus, said Delos Monteith, SCC’s institutional research and planning officer.
“We did 10 focus groups and asked students if they could change one thing about SCC what would that be. Overwhelmingly they said food service,” Monteith said.
A commons area combined with the quad would also give the university a central gathering space it currently lacks, Tomas said.
Burnette said if the school does not get the money requested from commissioners it would do “a very scaled back version” of the plan. Drawings and schematics for a full version are being compiled now.
The $580,000 from commissioners would be paired with $580,000 from the state to build the enclosed commons area and restaurant, as well as a few other building items around campus, Tomas said.
County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said that he wished commissioners had known about the capital building needs a bit earlier in the county budget process.
Tomas said that hadn’t occurred because the school had not known until recently that it would have access to state dollars for such a project.
“This spring the state gave us some flexibility on this one-time deal,” Tomas said. “The timing seems right if the monies are there — this project would enhance the campus tremendously.”
The total $1.16 million project would include other construction items as well.
• Renovate another building located in the quad area, the Founders Building, which is the oldest building on campus.
• Add 10 hair stations to the cosmetology department located in the Founders Building.
“It needs some upgrading,” Tomas said of the early 1960s-era building.
SCC received $304,500 in capital funds this year from Jackson County and is asking for a total of $677,000 for the next fiscal year — with the $580,000 earmarked for the special projects.
WCU, SCC reach out to community
They are dubbed by some in the community as the Three Amigos: a new chancellor at Western Carolina university, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County; Mike Murray.
Each started their respective positions July 1. Each promises new eras of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.
“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting this week. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.
Tomas said the Three Amigos have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.
“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.
The university, under the baton of Belcher, is holding a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents have to say about the school’s future. About 45 or 50 people, many of them WCU and SCC employees, turned out for the Jackson County hearing, though far fewer than that opted to actually stand up and speak.
Those who did called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty. They discussed a lack of childcare for professionals; and more specific needs, such as a request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, for WCU to again produce a regional economic report. Susie Ray, a retired WCU employee, urged the university to tap into the huge retiree population in WNC and corner a niche on “creative retirement.”
There were complaints that WCU wasn’t accessible to the community. The swimming pool, for instance, is closed to the public unless you are a student or WCU employee, forcing those who want to swim for exercise to motor over the Balsams to Waynesville. Continuing education classes are priced out of the reach of anyone except, perhaps, retired employees from WCU.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who retired from the university after 30 years service, told his former colleagues that many in the community simply don’t feel comfortable on campus. They feel uneasy and out of place. And, in turn, many of WCU’s faculty and staff choose to live somewhere other than Jackson County, with their connections to the community limited to commuting back and forth to work.
Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, spoke similarly of the “silo” mentality that’s afflicted the various Jackson County educational institutions.
“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”
Engaging and energized, new SCC president pledges to work for the community
Donald Tomas, the new president of Southwestern Community College since July 1, believes local institutions such as SCC will rely more and more on private donations as state funds continue drying up.
Private fundraising is already a fact of life for neighboring Western Carolina University and other schools in the University of North Carolina system. WCU, under former Chancellor John Bardo, raised more than $51 million in 2009 with its first comprehensive fundraising campaign in university history. New Chancellor David Belcher, who like Tomas took over July 1, is promising to lead the university through an even more successful fundraising campaign.
Tomas isn’t a stranger to raising private money to help fund public institutions. His last post was in south Texas, where he served as vice president of instruction at Weatherford College. He grew the campus from a single 2,400 square foot building with just five parking spaces — he personally parked on the street to save the spots for others — to 95,000 square feet, replete with 25 classrooms, a library and book store, during his 18-year career there.
“We were able to rally the community,” Tomas said.
But in Texas, they’ve been doing things a bit differently than here in North Carolina. Buildings and rooms weren’t named in honor of community do-gooders or public leaders who served as college boosters. Rather, naming rights were given to those who donated money, whether it was a private business or philanthropist. Tomas said he’s not above selling brick pavers engraved with donors’ names.
“You have to be creative,” Tomas said in his first interview with area news outlets after taking over as SCC’s president. “You have to cultivate these relationships, all the way along. After building relationships, if you have that need, you go back and say: ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and ask for a level of support.”
Tomas, 55, said he believes the communities served by SCC will be responsive to calls for funding help.
“The community is very supportive,” Tomas said. “Southwestern has a tremendous positive relationship in the region.”
Tomas believes Macon County, which has a new satellite campus, likely has the most potential for growth. He pointed to the new Macon classroom building, which is already at capacity shortly after opening its doors.
But that, Tomas said, is something that needs fleshing out with a better assessment after studying where growth is taking place.
“In six months from now, I could probably tell you ‘yes, here and here,’” Tomas said.
Still, it seems obvious the Jackson County campus is fairly landlocked, and a new building under way there will take care of its needs for the immediate future, Tomas said.
Tomas also wants to assess possibilities for SCC in Swain County, and plans to soon meet with tribal leaders with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
SCC’s new president takes over after a short stint by Richard Collings, who resigned the post suddenly. Longtime SCC President Cecil Groves retired last summer. Collings suffered a stroke after coming to North Carolina to start his new job and was forced to delay his start date. Collings resigned after just six months, and an interim president had to take over for the second time in less than a year until Tomas was put in place.
Tomas said SCC has continued to serve the region even through the year of turmoil in leadership.
“It might have been a little bit of a holding pattern, but it wasn’t noticed,” Tomas said.
If there has been a leadership vacuum, Tomas said it could well be in areas such as growth.
He is interested in evaluating where, exactly, SCC is at, and where the communities it serves wants the college to proceed. A strategic plan for the college will get under way this fall.
Tomas added that he isn’t “a field of dreams-type person, ‘build it and they will come.’”
Community colleges, by nature, shouldn’t be seen as an isolated institution.
“You have to meet people on their own turf,” Tomas said.
Tomas plans a three-county, meet-and-greet tour next month
Tomas said a virtue of community colleges is their ability to pivot quickly and respond to needs in the community for training and workforce development. For example, SCC is providing GED classes at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to make it easy for the employees there.
Tomas stressed the importance of students leaving SCC with an “employable exit.” He also hopes to work with WCU’s new chancellor to make the transition for students going beyond a two-year degree.
“Out students are gong to be Western students,” Tomas said. “I look forward to that relationship.
And, for that matter, the same goes for the new superintendant of Jackson County Schools, ushering in a new era with leadership change at the public school, community college and university level in Jackson County at the same time.
As did Chancellor Belcher in a public meeting a few weeks ago, SCC’s new president promised open, honest and visible leadership, and a highly visible role in the community.
“We try to maintain a fabric of openness,” Tomas said.
Tomas plans to be equally visible on campus. He likes to get out of his office and just walk around campus. People will know what he looks like, he promised.
“I have high expectations,” he said. “What comes along with that is accountability.”
At some point, you can expect to find Tomas teaching in the classroom. He believes doing so helps keep administrators grounded and tuned in to faculty and student concerns.
Community colleges in the crosshairs: Merging colleges could save money, but erode meaning for county
Local and state leaders in Western North Carolina are vigorously opposing a cost-savings plan to consolidate administrations of 15 of the state’s smallest community colleges, including those of Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.
A joint state legislative committee on government efficiency has recommended merging the leadership of community colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students. The group said this would save taxpayers about $5 million a year.
“I’m still not clear in my own mind about what exactly we are try to accomplish through this, except to save a little bit on administration,” said Bill Upton, a Haywood County commissioner and a retired educator of 38 years. “But what is it going to cost? Ultimately, I think it would be the staff and students who would suffer.”
Scott Ralls, president of the state’s community college system, agreed with Upton, saying what isn’t clear on a simple spreadsheet “is the role of community in community colleges.”
SEE ALSO: Are community colleges efficient?
“HCC, for example, is the best community college in the nation — for Haywood County,” Ralls said in an interview last week at Haywood Community College. He was in town for a meeting of the state’s community college presidents.
Over the decades, counties and schools such as Haywood County and HCC have together created this community-unique college, Ralls said, with the programs and the instructors tailored to fit the needs of Haywood County’s residents. Start lumping the leadership of various community colleges together, and you risk destroying what is arguably one of the best community college systems in the U.S., he said.
“The nature of these colleges would not be as colleges anymore, but as the campuses of other colleges,” Ralls said.
Any potential savings would be negated by the heavy toll, in terms of the loss of its colleges, to the communities involved, Ralls said.
HCC President Rose Johnson serves as an example of what intricate roles a community college leader plays in the lives of residents. Johnson became president of HCC in January 2006.
She helped start a green initiative through the chamber. She has volunteered on the elk project in Cataloochee Valley. And Johnson has worked directly with local businesses such as Evergreen Packaging to tailor employee training.
President Ralls said the smaller, rural colleges listed in the report for consolidation provide education and training in 36 counties with an average unemployment rate of 11 percent, compared to the current state average of 9.7 percent. They include nearly half of the state’s 40 most economically depressed counties.
Additionally, 23 percent of the funding for the state community college systems comes now via the support of local county commission boards.
On a practical level, Ralls said, how willing will those community leaders be to keep chipping in dollars if local control is jerked away?
Local support could erode, but savings could mount
Probably not very willing at all, said Conrad Burrell, chairman of Southwestern Community College’s Board of Trustees and a former Jackson County commissioner.
“The state’s system was created to serve the needs of the community, and this would be taking away from the community,” Burrell said. “We’re all different, with each of our colleges responding to the differences in the communities. I feel this would be detrimental, and it would be wrong.”
But on paper, and given the difficult economic times, the proposal would appear to have merits. Additionally, SCC seems to exist as a perfect model of how multiple counties actually can be served — and served very well indeed — by a centralized administration. SCC is headquartered in Sylva, with facilities in Macon, Swain, Cashiers and on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Twenty community colleges in North Carolina, such as SCC, already currently serve more than one county.
“The high level of local control that allows colleges leeway in how they implement administrative structures and activities is staunchly supported by college administrators, but it reduces the efficiency of the colleges and the system office,” the report notes. “Back-office functions — administrative activities that do not necessarily require face-to-face interactions, such as payroll or receiving — are performed at every college, resulting in 58 iterations of each activity.”
It’s cheaper per student, too, the larger the college, with the report finding that cost ranged from $447 to $1,679 for each student. As for administrative costs at colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students, the cost per student averaged $983; this compared with $647 at larger institutions.
“Larger colleges benefited from economies of scale,” the report notes.
The mergers would involve combining the administrations of two or more colleges into one, creating a multi-campus college. The government group suggested such functions such as senior administration, financial services, human resources, public information, institutional information and information technology could merge.
In turn, the newly merged administration would determine the staff needed at each campus to ensure smooth operations of the college.
The State Board of Community Colleges would be responsible for determining the actual number of mergers based on the groupings of colleges selected. The government group noted that, assuming each merger involves two schools within 30 miles of each other, at least one of which is a small school, there would be 15 mergers. However, the system could opt to merge three or more schools to create one multi-campus college under the recommendation.
Not so fast
But those educators actually working in the state community college system warn to look deeper.
“If you’re just materialistic in looking at the numbers, maybe it looks good,” said Donald Tomas, who became SCC’s president just at the beginning of this month. “SCC is sitting at 2,800 students right now, with double-digit growth (over the past few years) — are they projecting all this out a few years?”
An apparent lack of projecting into the future contained in the report, and of getting into the nitty-gritty of the numbers actually used to compile the recommendations, is what Tomas said disturbs him the most when he looks at such sweeping recommendations.
“What is the criteria that they are using?” he said. “If you just look at the savings it all sounds good. Until, that is, you get behind the scenes and really try to understand what they are looking at.”
Tomas seems to make a valid point: the report, one that if adopted would make irrevocable changes in the name of saving dollars to North Carolina’s community college system, is just 32 pages in length. It does not assess the rapid growth currently being experienced by the state’s community colleges and how that will play out in the future, nor does it discuss more abstract concepts, including whether there would be continuing local funding support if the recommendations were adopted.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the community college system in North Carolina: The state’s community colleges serve some 243,854 fulltime students, with enrollment over the past few years (since the recession started) increasing by 28 percent, with no drop in numbers anticipated, according to President Ralls.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as the vice chancellor of administration and finance for Western Carolina University before retiring after a 30-year career as an educator, said he believes there are too many unanswered questions to take such a huge gamble for relatively small apparent gain.
“Obviously, the identity with a local community college is important to each county and its citizens,” Wooten said in an email. “I believe commissioners will not be as interested in allocating funds for a community college if the local identity is lost. Certainly, there are some efficiencies to be gained by eliminating duplicative administrative positions; however, the local county will be impacted by losing jobs.”
Johnson, president of HCC, believes merging colleges — say, HCC and SCC, though the report doesn’t specify particular mergers, only in broad terms merging the ones that are “too” small — would be bitter pills for the communities being pinpointed to swallow. Each community pushed for a community college, usually provided the land needed for the colleges, handed over many dollars over the years, and have taken enormous satisfaction in the colleges that were built.
“I believe it would remove the pride of having a higher-education institution, that was created by the community and sustained by the community for all these years,” Johnson said. “I believe the greatest danger is of losing that community involvement.”
Thom Brooks, SCC’s vice president for instruction and student services, also believes consolidating college administrations would have serious local consequences.
“Our success as a community college is directly attributable to responsive local leadership that ensures that we meet the unique needs of our students and communities in a timely and effective manner,” Brooks said in an email. “I am unaware of many models where education is enhanced through added bureaucracy and long-distance decision making.”
N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he’ll oppose any move to merge community colleges, terming the report “pennywise and pound foolish.”
“It is a bad idea,” Rapp said, “and it would undercut local autonomy.”
That said, Rapp also emphasized the report points out some areas for increased efficiencies in the state community college system, particularly through combined purchasing power.
President Ralls said there has been movement in that direction, and noted that in recent months the community college system has sought private-sector advice on saving money through collaborative purchasing.
Ralls said while he did not want to dismiss the importance of potentially saving $5 million a year, the truth is the potential savings through mergers represent just .04 percent of an overall education budget of $11.9 billion.
He wrote in summation to the Program Evaluation Division’s recommendation that compiled the recommendations, “I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change to our state, our citizens’ access to education, our communities and our colleges.”
SCC worked for years to fund road
The basic issue is safety. That’s it, plain and simple.
While one Jackson County commissioner has questioned the need for R-5000, a new access road for Southwestern Community College’s Jackson Campus, the board of trustees and I contend that not only is there a driving need, it accelerates daily.
From a single building in 1964, the Jackson Campus has expanded to six buildings, plus the new Early College facility built last summer. The same road that served a few dozen students back in 1964 now serves a soaring enrollment of 3,668 college students, plus faculty and staff. Add to that the 155 high-schoolers at the Early College.
With only one way in and out for the entire campus, a new road is needed not just to alleviate congestion, but to mainly ensure safety. During an emergency or the need for quick evacuation, a single road is a handicap.
Back in 1994, 30 years after the campus opened, the need for a new road was included in the SCC Master Plan. Developed by Moore and Associates of Asheville, the plan suggested the college consider other points of access to campus since there is only one way in and out. A possible area, they suggested, was from N.C. 107, with the proper right-of-way into the back property at its most southeast point.
That’s 17 years ago. Our board realized then, even before 9/11 or incidences like Virginia Tech, that we needed to protect the safety of our students.
In the 1990s the college began looking at alternatives. On July 28, 1998, then-President Cecil Groves presented aerial photos of the SCC campus to the board and discussed the development of a potential direct access road to N.C. 107. Since the college is built on a hillside, college officials decided the best alternative would be a loop road around campus with direct access to NC 107. In addition to providing safety for campus, it would help eliminate congestion at the N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 intersection.
On Feb. 12, 1999, the SCC Board of Trustees approved a plan of property acquisition, as outlined within the revised college master plan. Maps and aerial shots of a proposed route at the back of campus linking to N.C. 107 were included in that 1999 revised master plan. On Oct, 15, 1999, the State Board of Community Colleges approved SCC’s property acquisition plan, including the N.C. 107 access plan for a second means of access to the campus.
Following the state board approval, in 2000 we contacted various agencies outlining the college’s property acquisition plans and the N.C. 107 access road. Among these were David Gourley, real property agent, State Property Office; Wayne McDevitt, secretary, N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources; Ron Watson, division engineer, N.C. Department of Transportation; and Jay Denton, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
It has taken the college 10 years to acquire the three parcels of property necessary to build the road. During those 10 years the agencies involved were kept informed of our plans and progress. Also during those 10 years the college secured legislative action and funding to relocate the N.C. Division of Forestry offices. A planning grant was received in fiscal year 2007-08, with a construction allocation awarded fiscal year 2008-09.
I have been involved with this project since day one and I can tell you it’s been a slow, methodical process, certainly not fast-tracked at all.
Dr. Groves, now president emeritus, said it well in this brief statement, “What we had was an overwhelming need, but with 10 years of tireless planning we developed a workable solution, along with the funding to fix the problem.”
Just down the road Smoky Mountain High School, situated on a hillside with a single road in and out, faced a similar situation. DOT funds were secured to build a second road for the high school. The high school students on our campus, as well as our college students, deserve the same safety factor. We have tried not to burden our commissioners and local taxpayers, and that’s why we worked diligently to secure DOT funding for SCC’s new road.
(George Stanley is the SCC Project Manager for this project.)
Former commissioner now former college trustee, too
William Shelton is off the local community college’s board of trustees after the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, instead appointed Dewayne Elders, Commissioner Charles Elders’ son.
Shelton, a Democrat, was a former Jackson County commissioner who lost his bid last November for re-election — to Elders, a Republican.
Shelton had served as a board of trustee member for Southwestern Community College since 2007.
“It was a pleasure to serve as a trustee, and now it is time for someone else to step in,” Shelton said the morning after the vote, adding he wished the SCC board the “best of luck.”
Elders, before voting, asked stand-in county Attorney David Moore (the usual attorney, Jay Coward wasn’t there) for a legal opinion.
“I don’t think this is a conflict, because I’m not going back to school, but I want to make sure before I vote,” Elders said.
Moore responded that he was not particularly prepared to answer such a question, but that in his best off-the-cuff response it was really up to Elders and the board to make that decision.
Without Elders, the board would have had a split vote, 2-2.
Asked by Chairman Jack Debnam if he wanted to abstain, Elders responded that no, he did not. And he didn’t, instead choosing to vote with Debnam (who nominated Dewayne Elders) and fellow Republican Doug Cody. Debnam is an Independent, but his votes are in line with the Republicans.
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the law prohibits elected officials from gaining a direct personnel benefit, meaning Elders didn’t violate the state statute.
Democrat Joe Cowan spoke in favor of Shelton, alluding to the former commissioner’s leadership qualities and service. He and Democrat Mark Jones voted against Dewayne Elders.
“I’ve had a number of requests from constituents of mine that the board reappoint (Shelton),” Cowan said.
Jackson commissioner keeps on DOT warpath
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.
“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”
The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”
At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.
Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.
Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.
Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.
“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.
The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.
It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.
“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.
“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.
Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”
“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”
Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.
Dustup over proposed SCC entrance road kicks up again
The tiny town of Webster has suddenly emerged as a player in whether a controversial $12 million entrance road is built into neighboring Southwestern Community College.
That’s because the state Department of Transportation wants the town to sign off on a municipal agreement for the new route from N.C. 107 to N.C. 116. In other words, the town is still large enough to encompass some of the road’s boundaries, and that means big DOT seems to need little Webster’s OK.
But if a meeting of the town board last week is any indication of which way the wind might be blowing, it looks like this town of fewer than 500 souls could put the kibosh on SCC’s road, a pet project of SCC Board of Trustees President Conrad Burrell. He is also this region’s board of transportation member. The board, until Gov. Beverly Perdue somewhat changed the process recently, has had virtually total say-so on what roads get built when, and where, in North Carolina.
Burrell voted three times to give the SCC road project money, with $680,000 since 2007 already tagged for the new SCC entrance. Despite also sitting on the community college board, his voting does not violate the state ethics law. Burrell has emphasized that he does not view his advocacy for the road as improper since he does not stand to gain personally. A new building going up on campus has been named in honor of Burrell, partly in acknowledgement of his strenuous efforts to see the road built.
The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus, Burrell has said.
But others aren’t so sure this is a good use of such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars.
“I personally have some concerns about this,” said Webster Mayor Larry Phillips. “Not so much about the road itself, but the cost of the project.”
That concern, Phillips indicated, is directly attributable to Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam, who has embarked on a one-man crusade against the DOT project.
Debnam has publicly questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important when compared to other state road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials, reporting to The Smoky Mountain News, “I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
Debnam is scheduled to meet with each of Jackson County’s three town boards to layout those concerns, including Webster. Debnam also used his position as commission chairman to stump against the project during a county meeting. Commissioner Joe Cowan countered Debnam’s criticism of the road. Cowan last week repeated his call that it would be only fair invite the DOT to a meeting to give its side on the project.
Cowan, like Burrell, is a Democrat, while Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said a date in July or August for such a discussion has been tentatively set, per Cowan’s request.
SCC road gets mired in questions about motives
A planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.
But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.
“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.
About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.
The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.
Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.
But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.
In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.
Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.
Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.
Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.
In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.