For months, debate surrounding the price tag of a new Creative Arts building on the Haywood Community College campus has largely pitted the county commissioners against the college board.
But now, on the eve of a key public hearing that could make or break the project’s approval, the college board of trustees have emerged narrowly split over one key element of the design.
The building’s design incorporates several green features, from harvesting rain water to buying Energy Star photocopiers. The feature that has landed in the crosshairs of the controversy, though, is an alternative energy technology known as solar thermal.
Charles Boyd, a newcomer to the community college board, said the technology is “too cutting edge” and is so far unproven.
“My concern is, is it going to be an asset rather than a liability?” Boyd said. “If it isn’t foolproof, the community doesn’t need to pick up the liability for that.”
A vote last month by college trustees was 6 to 5 in favor of moving forward with the solar thermal technology.
There are around 30 other solar thermal projects in the nation installing similar technology, though none are fully up and running yet. Nonetheless, Mark Bumgarner, a member of the college board, believes it has been fully vetted and is satisfied it’s a good deal.
Bumgarner pointed out that two of the five who voted against it are new to the college board, having just been appointed by county commissioners this summer.
“They were very, very new on the board and did not have all the facts,” Bumgarner said.
Under the administration of Dr. Rose Johnson, Haywood Community College has hung its hat on sustainability initiatives at all levels, from the teaching curriculum to campus operations.
But when it comes to the solar thermal feature, it’s not merely a prized eco-perk. College leaders say the measure is needed to meet rigorous new state standards for energy efficiency in state buildings.
The building has an above-average energy load due to power-hungry equipment like pottery kilns and woodworking tools. That in turn requires an above-average effort to bring down the square-foot energy consumption to within state levels.
But how far the college must go to meet the mandate continues to be a matter of debate.
“I personally feel we can meet the green standard without going to the extent we are going,” Boyd said. “We are trying to look after taxpayers money. We have to be real frugal.”
But Bumgarner said switching gears and going back to the drawing board at this point could cost more than it would save. The college considered other energy saving measures, and found this one to have the fewest downsides, he said.
The cost of the solar thermal is between $600,00 and $700,000. Even factoring that out of the equation, county commissioners claim the $10.2 million price tag on the new creative arts building is too high. College leaders, meanwhile, claim they have cut costs all they can without starting over completely or compromising core functions of the building.
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. The vote was seen as broad public endorsement of the college’s growth.
But county commissioners question the wisdom of devoting nearly all the sales tax revenue for the next 15 years to one project when the needs on campus are great.
The college has already sent the plan out to bid, and the deadline for contractors to respond was this week. Commissioners have been reserving final judgment until the bids came in, but the college won’t be ready to release the lowest bid for at least another week or two.
Want to weigh in?
A public hearing on the loan application for the new Haywood Community College creative arts building will be held before the county commissioners at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 16, in the historic courthouse.
What is solar thermal technology?
The sun heats water as it flows through giant collectors. The solar-heated water supplies the building’s hot water needs. It also heats the building by circulating through pipes embedded below the floor, which radiate heat upward into the room.
The more complicated, and cutting edge, aspect of the technology involves using the hot water to cool the building, by using the thermal energy to drive an absorption chiller.