Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

When North Carolina voters approved the Connect NC bond earlier this year, $7.1 million was earmarked for projects at Southwestern Community College (SCC). SCC Board of Trustees voted to make a new health and science building on the Jackson County campus a priority for that funding. The entire project, which totals $17 million, would help expand the program which currently runs 14 programs in a  building designed for four, according to SCC President Dr. Don Tomas.

SCC determined that, with more space, it could accept 100 more health sciences students each year without hiring more instructors, meaning better career opportunities for residents and a better-trained local workforce.

The bond requires that the county kick in at least a quarter of the project cost to utilize bond funds. Jackson County has said if the project is finalized, it would plan to pay for its portion through a new revenue stream created this year when voters approved an additional quarter-cent sales tax. Revenue from the tax will fund capital projects at SCC and in Jackson County Schools.

While the health and human science building is the SCC board’s priority for the bond funds, the board also wants to use some of the bond funds to construct a new burn building in Macon County.

The current burn building has been in operation since 1990 and serves fire departments from around the region. A Southwestern Community College engineer and an independent structural engineer hired by Macon County, recommended that the current building be completely replaced within the next 12 to 18 months.

A new burn building would cost around $2 million, and like the project in Jackson County, would require a match from Macon County to utilize bond funds. While the state only requires the county to provide a 25 percent match for capital projects funded through the bond, SCC asked Macon County to consider providing the college with 42 percent of the funding to build the burn building they have designed. SCC also wants the 42 percent to be cash, while Macon County would like to use other avenues, such as property to meet the 25 percent match.

“$7.1 million doesn’t go very far for the projects we need at the college,” Dr. Tomas noted.

Originally, SCC’s plan was to construct a new burn building in the same location of the current building, at the Industrial Park in Macon County. No new property would be needed in that scenario, however, SCC’s master plan, actually moves the burn building to the current SCC Macon Campus over the next few years. Roland noted that the county owns the property around SCC’s Macon Campus so to fall in line with the college’s master plan, and to meet the state required 25 percent match, Roland proposed the county giving SCC 12 acres of land rather than a cash match.

Dr. Tomas said that while the land would be appreciated, what SCC needs is dollars to fund the project.

Roland noted that maybe through value engineering, and looking at the overall plans for the burn building, maybe SCC can reduce the project expenses and fall in line with the funds available rather than the county allocating additional dollars to make up the difference since SCC is asking for 17 percent more of a match than the state requires.

Commissioners agreed to move forward with surveying the land around SCC to decide its value and usefulness for SCC before deciding what the next step may be.

A question of whether or not a new burn building is necessary still lingers. The building isn’t a requirement of the college, and as Commissioner Ronnie Beale pointed out during last week’s meeting, more than 50 percent of people using the building for training and classes are outside of Macon County and are exempt from paying fees or tuition to utilize the building.

Emergency personnel from around Western North Carolina travel to Macon County to conduct training at Southwestern Community College Public Safety Department’s burn building.

While SCC has identified a burn building as a priority, nothing in place mandates such a building. The community college’s fire training program does rely on it for the required course work.