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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.”

“Go Bobcats!” can now be the cry at Haywood Community College, where they’ve adopted the feline as their new mascot. The bobcat doesn’t, as yet, have a name but the school plans to hold a contest this autumn to christen their newest representative.

It’s not the first time the school’s had a mascot, and in fact, it’s not the first time the mascot has been a bobcat. However, HCC has been mascot-free for years now.

The college doesn’t have traditional sports teams, so you won’t find the bobcat cheering on competitors at standard sporting events. They do, however, have a team of woodsmen who can now take the moniker with them as they go head-to-head with opponents at timber meets, as well as an ecology team that competes against other schools in everything from wild game calling to estimating board feet in a tree.

The animal’s selection isn’t just symbolic, though. The school’s student government pulled together to purchase a bobcat costume that can be donned at everything from the aforementioned competitions to open houses and recruitment events.

Discussion and debate over which mascot to choose has been circulating on campus for over a year. But in the end, faculty, staff and students settled on the bobcat, in keeping with the school’s history and local indigenous wildlife.

HCC is one of the first community colleges in the region to choose a mascot. Neither Southwest Community College nor Asheville’s A-B Tech sport a mascot, and mascot’s aren’t common among other regional community colleges without conventional competitive sports teams.

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.

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.

A new and long-awaited Creative Arts Building is only days away from its groundbreaking ceremony at Haywood Community College. But the tree clearing undertaken to prepare the way for the new crafts center has proven less-than-popular with some of the school’s forestry students.

Andy Fitzsimmons, a student in the college’s nationally recognized forestry program, said he’s lamenting the loss of trees that have been used as teaching tools for the school’s natural resources programs.

“There were some trees in there that had been there for a very long time, there were some that were just starting to sprout up,” said Fitzsimmons. “I feel like it just takes away learning tools from other departments.”

The college says that the trees in question had to go in order to make way for contractors to begin work. Some students were also displeased by the way the plants were taken out — dozed over rather than cut.

“They just seemed to go in there with tractors and push trees over, they didn’t even saw a lot of the trees,” said Jeremy Graves, a recent forestry graduate. “Even if they were going to proceed at that site, they could’ve taken their time and allowed the students to go in there and fell the trees. That would’ve been an excellent teaching opportunity for students that are still in the program.”

Debbie Trull, the school’s executive director of administration, said that the college really did everything in its power to fell the trees properly, making sure they were still useable either for firewood or to be milled and reused as flooring in the school’s new research house.

As for using students in the removal process, Trull said the idea was broached by the architect and discussed at the school, but because of a logging accident that happened there in 1982, the decision was made that letting students cut the trees was too dangerous.

“Where they get the opportunity to practice with their chainsaws is in their operating-a-chainsaw class,” said Trull, adding that they did use forestry students to mark the trees that were appropriate for removal before uprooting them.

Some students, however, see the bare and leveled patch of land as an eyesore and blemish on the face of their famously beautiful campus.

“It’s supposed to be an arboretum,” said Graves. “People come from all over to see the school, to walk through there and see the plants and wildlife. I think it kind-of goes against what the school claims to promote and I think it’s a big eyesore for the campus.”

Dae-Won Koh, the project manager for the building and vice president of Innovative Designs, the project’s lead architect, said that they’ve actually planned for the removal of as few trees as possible. In fact, said Koh, the amount of trees left on the site is going to be a greater challenge for the contractor, but they felt it was important to save as much of the surrounding flora as possible.

The contract for the $8.3 million building, which will house the college’s well-known professional crafts programs, was just awarded to Miles-McClellan Construction. The groundbreaking is scheduled for March 6, after which construction on the 41,665-square-foot, environmentally friendly building will begin in earnest.

By the time construction is finished, said Koh, the school is planning to replant two trees for every tree that was removed, which will be reflected in his final landscape plan.

In fact, he said, though the decision to cut down larger, older trees might not be as aesthetically pleasing or popular as removing smaller ones, research done by his firm has shown that it will go further towards reducing the building’s carbon footprint.

“The reason that we supported the college’s decision on planting new trees two-to-one is because when they [the trees] are old, their photosynthesis is quite low compared to the young trees,” said Koh. “If you plant new, young trees, they have to grow so fast, the contribution to the environment is the greater.”

Trull said that the school has taken all these things into consideration and has tried to make the most eco-friendly decisions for the site.

“There is a landscape plan and we worked within that contract as we could and with the department of natural resources as much as we could to do everything correctly,” said Trull.

Even so, the naked patch that now features in the center of an otherwise-green campus still doesn’t sit well with some who prize the school for its natural beauty and want to keep it that way.

“It’s an area of natural space that’s destroyed, it’s gone,” said Graves. “To drive by there and see it, it just hurts.”

Up to 1,700 jobs, perhaps a whole campus eliminated — the dire picture painted this month by Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, on the state of higher education during these tough economic times isn’t pretty.

Locally, staff and faculty at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, Southwestern Community College in Sylva and Haywood Community College in Clyde are preparing for significant budget cuts.

Most likely, a 10-percent reduction is coming. State colleges and universities across North Carolina, however, are outlining what they’d do in response to higher and lower reductions, as directed by the UNC system and The State Board of Community Colleges.

“We are hearing talk of impending heavy slashing and have been asked to prepare scenarios of how we would deal with 5-, 10- and even 15-percent cuts,” said Rose Hooper Garrett, public information officer for SCC, via email.

A year ago, the UNC system took a $70 million cut, or less than 3 percent.

 

Sorting it out

“At this point, it’s too early in the process to provide the actual impact of what a 10-percent budget reduction would do to the overall operations of WCU,” said Chuck Wooten, vice chancellor for administration and finance for the university.

“It’s fair to say that most likely we will have fewer class sections, more students in each class, more dependence on part-time faculty, reduced funds for faculty travel and professional development, fewer funds for general operations such as supplies and equipments, elimination of vacant positions, possible elimination of positions that are currently filled, and reduced funds for general maintenance of the physical plant of the campus.”

Here’s what is happening: North Carolina is facing a budget deficit of $3.5 billion.

At 5 percent, the UNC system would cut $135 million and likely eliminate 800 jobs. At 10 percent, the UNC system would cut $270 million and eliminate 1,700 jobs.

“We’re really going to impact the academic side,” the Associated Press quoted Bowles as saying.

Rose Harrell Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, said the community college would lose more than $1,306,478 with a 10-percent reduction.

“For comparison, the college received an increase of $1,213,111 in state funding this fiscal year because it had a 10.77 percent enrollment increase,” Johnson said. “If the budget reduction becomes reality, the college will lose its enrollment growth budget increase and potentially more.”

Among other measures, Garrett said SCC has been considering tuition increases.

“At the system office we will look at operations, contracts and personnel,” she said.

 

Preparing for the worst

Wooten said WCU anticipated budget reductions by making a number of decisions in the 2009-2010 fiscal year to take in budget reductions totaling about 8 percent, which eliminated 93.92 positions.

“After satisfying budget reductions for 2010-11, $4,404,792 remained for use against future budget reductions,” Wooten said.

WCU would see reductions of $8,638,874 at the 10-percent level and $4,319,437 at the 5 percent level, he said.

“WCU’s plan, which was submitted to the Office of State Budget and Management, would first offer up the full amount remaining from previous budget reductions ($4,404,792) to satisfy the 5-percent budget reduction plan, and campus divisions and departments have identified additional budget reductions ($4,234,082) to satisfy a 10-percent budget reduction plan … (this) would potentially eliminate 41.08 positions in the 2011-2012 fiscal year budget.”

The Haywood Community College Woodsmen’s Team took first in the 2010 John G. Palmer Intercollegiate Woodsmen’s Meet and Forest Festival Day recently held at the Cradle of Forestry. The team competed against Montgomery Community College, North Carolina State University, Penn State Mont Alto, and Virginia Tech.

Following is a list of all HCC finishes:

• Quiz Bowl, 3rd Place Team – Shane Baker, Johnny Manuel, Chris Steely, Bill Sweeney

• Dendrology, 1st Place Team – Shane Baker, Bill Sweeney; 2nd Place Team – Johnny Manuel, Laura Strother

• Archery, 1st Place Team – Trevor Lauber, Craig Oliver

• Team Log Roll, 4th Place Team – Heather Franklin, Vance Hagan, Zach Ritter, Kirby Shipman

• Orienteering, 4th Place – Dillon Michael

• Standing Block Chop/Male, 1st Place – Daniel Jones

• Pulp Toss for Accuracy, 3rd Place Team – Caleb Ferrell, Heather Franklin, Vance Hagan, Josh Justice, Dillon Michael, Kirby Shipman; 4th Place Team – Andy Fitzsimmons, James Judge, Kendall Judge, Justin Kearse, Joseph Lineberger, Laura Strother

• Axe Throw/Female, 3rd Place – Heather Franklin

• Axe Throw/Male, 3rd Place – Josh Justice

• Pole Fell, 4th Place Team – Miles Arnette, Kyle Childers

• Pole Climb/Female, 1st Place – Danielle Crocker

• Pole Climb/Male, 1st Place – Hunter Edmundson; 3rd Place – Zach Ritter

• Cross Cut/Male, 3rd Place – Joseph Lineberger, Kirby Shipman; 4th Place – Andy Fitzsimmons, Kendall Judge

• Cross Cut/Female, 2nd Place – Erin Kearse, Laura Strother

• Cross Cut/Jack and Jill, 2nd Place – Andy Fitzsimmons, Laura Strother

• Single Buck/Male, 1st Place – Daniel Jones; 2nd Place – James Judge

• Bolt Split/Female, 1st Place – Laura Strother; 4th Place – Chize Love

• Bolt Split/Male, 1st Place – Kirby Shipman; 4th Place – Preston Winters

• Chain Saw/Female, 2nd Place – Erin Kearse; 4th Place – Heather Franklin

• Chain Saw/Male, 2nd Place – James Judge

• Horizontal Speed Chop/Male, 1st Place – Daniel Jones

Star in HCC’s next film

Local acting talent is being sought for Haywood Community College’s fall semester short film project called, “The Pond.”

Casting takes place from noon until 3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, and from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Sep. 13, in the Charles Beall Auditorium on the college campus. Those cast into the project will receive screen credit.

“The Pond” is a story by David Blanton, developed into a screenplay by David Blanton with Cassidy Haynes and Ryan Robinson. The film is about five lifelong friends in their mid- to late-20s who set out on a routine camping trip only to find out one of them is not what he or she seems to be.

Cast of characters include:

• Dylan – the outdoorsman, the quiet one

• Matt – the pretty boy, rich, spoiled

• Brody – serious, mature, the leader of the group

• Linda – the “girl next door”

• Jamie – the party girl

HCC film and video students plan to enter the film into several student film competitions and festivals at the end of the year including the Cannes and Sundance student film festivals.

HCC Film & Video Production Technology students will assume all the major production roles for the film — from art design to director of photography to chief editor. Instructor and program coordinator Cheryl Fulghum will oversee the production, serving as producer.

“We began pre-production of the film the first day of class and have a tight schedule for the production. But with local talent and easy location access, I have confidence we’ll finish by our end of semester deadline. I’m thrilled with the work they’ve done so far and I expect their enthusiasm to continue. They clearly own this project as a team and crew, and that is a producer’s dream,” Fulghum said.

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After months of debate, Haywood Community College leaders emerged victorious this week in their quest to build a $10.3 million building where craft industries will be taught.

From weaving to pottery to woodworking, the new building will be a showcase for the college and a centerpiece for the vibrant arts and crafts community in Western North Carolina.

Haywood County commissioners had final say on whether the college could move forward, but for months they have been playing hardball over the building’s price tag. Ultimately, the commissioners approved the building Monday in a 4 to 1 vote.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the lone dissenting vote, but the other commissioners made it clear their support was tempered.

HCC President Rose Johnson said she is thankful the commissioners approved the project and the college can move forward with construction. The process was far more controversial than Johnson likely anticipated, however. A new craft building had long been the college’s top construction priority — since before Johnson became president.

“There was no way I could foresee how complicated it was going to be,” Johnson said.

Ultimately what convinced commissioners was unanimous backing by the college board of trustees itself. Until recently, the college trustees had been split on various aspects of the project, from the total building price tag to solar energy features. But last week, on the eve of a final vote by the county, the trustees convened and unanimously endorsed the project.

“They wanted to go to the commissioners with a unified vote,” Johnson said.

Mark Bumgarner, chairman of the HCC board, admits the move was critical. Commissioners said as much as well.

“If you had come in here today and it was still a 6-5 decision, I would be uncomfortable that you didn’t have a stronger consensus,” said Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick. “I don’t want to be in the position as a commissioner to stop a project another board wants to go forward with. If they are all in consensus now with the project, I would feel comfortable approving it, but not because I am sold on it completely.”

“Now that you have a consensus I feel a lot better,” agreed Commissioner Bill Upton.

The college has trimmed nearly $1 million from the project over the past month. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring the price tag any lower than before. Bids from contractors came in higher than architects had estimated, forcing the college to cut elements of the building just to hold the line on the cost.

The higher-than-expected estimates came as a shock to both the college and commissioners. The depressed economy has, in most cases, led to lower building costs as contractors compete for limited work.

“This is the first project I have heard of in two or three years that came in above the estimated cost,” Ensley said.

Ensley said the reason the college had such high bids was the cutting-edge nature of the design. Ensley said he heard from contractors who either didn’t bid at all or who bid high because some eco-components of the building were unfamiliar.

Commissioners didn’t pass up one last chance to lecture college leaders over the price tag before signing off on the project. The building will be paid for out of a special quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters two years ago. The county had pledged to dedicate revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax to community college construction if voters would approve it.

But Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said the county is ultimately on the hook for the loan.

“If something happened to the sales tax and it went south, that means the county would have to pick it up,” Curtis said. Curtis said the county doesn’t want to have to raise taxes in the future due to poor financial planning today.

Swanger warned the college not to bank on the special pot of sales tax money as being their own forever.

“I think it is important that all of us go into this with our eyes wide open,” Swanger said.

A decade from now, there will be a different cast of characters, with different priorities and campaign pledges than today’s board, Swanger said. While today’s commissioners pledged to devote the special sales tax to the college, it could easily be co-opted by a future board for a different use, he said.

It makes it all the more critical that the college be certain they want to burn through the lion’s share of the money on this one building, Swanger said.

Commissioners told the college not to come back later asking for more money for other projects.

“You know the lack of funds we have for projects for the community college outside this pool of money,” Kirkpatrick said.

When the recession hit, the county cut the building maintenance budget for the college by two-thirds. Commissioners said it could be a long time before that maintenance budget is restored. That means the college may need to dip into the special pot of sales tax money for regular maintenance.

When commissioners first broached that possibility earlier this year, supporters of the college came out in force to protest what they saw as commissioners reneging on their earlier promise to devote the sales tax money to campus expansion and new construction.

But times are tough, Ensley said.

“Do I want to dictate what the college does? That is not my job. As county commissioners, it is my job to ask questions.”

Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick

The Haywood County commissioners have done their job, and now it is time to let Haywood Community College and its trustees do theirs — build a new Creative Arts Building that will educate the next generation of craft entrepreneurs in the Southern Appalachians.

The proposed new building has been scrutinized for months. County commissioners, college trustees, college administrators, and citizens have dissected the size, the energy saving measures and the cost of this building. HCC administrators, trustees and architects were asked to sharpen their pencils to reduce costs and even re-think the need for this building in light of other needs. In the end, very little changed.

The energy saving technology has been perhaps the most contentious part of this building. According to the experts we’ve spoken with, the technology works and is not experimental. The tax breaks make it a virtual no-risk investment (see story page 12), and one of the only reason there aren’t dozens of  green buildings like this going up is because the recession has sidetracked or stalled projects across the country.

Saving energy, like the simple act of consuming less of everything, is what will ensure the future economic sustainability of this country. Technology to do this will change and evolve quickly over the next few decades, but everyone is going to have to get on board. The state and federal governments are mandating it. And it’s simply the right thing to do.

This building is also critical to maintaining HCC’s prominence in the $200 million Western North Carolina craft industry. The college’s program of turning out artists who are also trained entrepreneurs is heralded as unique and among the best in the entire nation. In a place where nearly every expert agrees that small entrepreneurs are the keys to economic health, this community college program is a diamond in the rough. It won’t keep its current status — or gain an even better reputation — if we don’t invest in the program.

Although some have criticized the proposed building, it has not been widespread. In fact, it seems just the opposite. There is a lot of support among the business community and the civic leaders of Haywood for this project. The fact that voters approved the referendum in 2008 directing sales tax money to HCC was an indicator of the public support for the college. Yes, this building is expensive, but it has been vetted by HCC administrators, college trustees, the county commissioners and the public. No one has developed ways to re-design and save substantial money and still meet the college’s needs and the state mandates. The fact that you get what you pay for is sometimes just the simple, if expensive, truth.

Commissioners, on one hand, should be commended for how this process has unfolded. Coming on the heels of the debacle at Haywood Regional Medical Center, where the hands-off approach of the county was criticized, it’s easy to understand why this project has met such scrutiny. It also didn’t help that HCC President Rose Johnson’s name came up on the short list of potential new presidents at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College during the time debate about this building started.

But those arguments don’t detract from the need for this project. Voters OK’d the sales tax money and commissioners have turned the plans inside out and asked good questions, but it’s time to approve the plans and rely on college trustees and administrators to make this project successful.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Alternative energy has emerged as a sticking point in the debate over a proposed $10 million creative arts building at Haywood Community College.

The project is in limbo as it awaits approval from county commissioners, who have expressed reservations for the past several months over the building’s price tag. Critics believe college leaders are being overzealous in their pursuit of eco-friendly building features, and the cost is being driven up as a result. They fear HCC is pushing the envelope with cutting-edge solar technology, making it a guinea pig in the alternative-energy field.

But supporters say the alternative energy features are smart. They will save the college money over the long run for no additional upfront cost, allowing the college to “go green” risk free and even benefit financially.

The Haywood Community College Board of Trustees voted 6 to 5 last month to include a solar technology in the building design. The final decisions now rests in the hands of county commissioners.

At a public hearing on the project last week, county commissioners pressed the project’s lead architect and an alternative energy firm engaged to install the solar technology to explain how it would work. The Smoky Mountain News conducted follow-up interviews with the firms, as well as experts at the N.C. Solar Center housed at N.C. State University, to get answers on all the solar aspects of the project — and then some.

 

What kind of alternative energy are we talking about?

The design calls for three technologies: solar thermal for hot water and heat, solar thermal for air conditioning and solar panels for electricity.

Solar panels are nothing new. Mounted on the roof, the panels convert the sun’s rays to electricity.

Solar thermal uses the sun to heat water flowing through coils on the roof, which in turn provides hot water for the building. Hot- water pipes also run beneath the floor to provide radiant heating in the winter, similar to a radiator.

For the air conditioning, solar thermal heat will be used to power an absorption chiller.

How much does all this cost upfront?

Nothing. Sounds too good to be true, but HCC pays nothing. A private alternative energy firm, FLS Energy, will pay for the solar thermal system and solar panels.

“We finance the project, we design it, develop it and install it,” said Michael Shore, CEO of FLS Energy.

Why would FLS do that?

FLS will make money by selling energy to HCC and to Progress Energy over the power grid.

“We are like a little tiny utility on their roof,” Shore said.

FLS will get a bank loan for the up-front costs of the equipment and pay off the loan by selling the power. In about 10 years, FLS will have recouped its costs.

“It is a good business investment for us. Over the long term we pay off the debt and make a profit,” Shore said. “The financial arrangement we have done many times with very successful results.”

Where do tax credits come in?

State and federal tax incentives for solar energy are a critical piece of the puzzle for FLS. The venture wouldn’t be profitable without them.

But FLS doesn’t have enough tax liability of its own to fully monetize the tax credits. So a third-party investor is brought in to the venture to make use of the tax credits.

What does FLS sell to Progress Energy?

Unfortunately, FLS can’t sell electricity generated from the solar panels directly to HCC. Utilities have monopolies in their territory.

“In North Carolina the only entities you can buy electricity from are the utilities,” Shore said.

So the solar electricity will be sold to Progress. A new state energy bill requires Progress to generate a portion of its electricity from renewable sources. That means Progress is not only willing to buy the solar power from FLS, but will pay a premium for it — another critical element in the business model for FLS.

Meanwhile, FLS will pay HCC for the privilege of housing the solar panels on its roof. While HCC will have to buy its electricity the regular way, its power costs will be offset by the regular payments from FLS.

What does FLS sell to HCC?

FLS can, however, sell energy generated by the solar thermal system directly to HCC. Solar thermal energy is measured in heat units known as BTUs — so it is technically more like natural gas than electricity. FLS will charge HCC for the BTUs it uses.

What will the college pay FLS for the BTUs?

Whatever the rate is, it will be lower than what HCC would pay for comparable power on the open market, and it is locked in through a contract and not subject to rising energy costs.

“It does save them a significant amount in energy cost during the contract period,” said Dale Freudenberger, president of FLS. “It will absolutely be saving them money.”

If it is such a sure-fire business model, why aren’t more people doing it?

It sounds too good to be true. There’s no upfront costs or risk for HCC. The college even reaps savings on its power bills and gets kickbacks from FLS — thus making money while “going green.”

“It turns out to be a pretty good deal,” said Tim Lupo with the N.C. Solar Center.

A progressive state energy policy has only recently set the stage for arrangements like this one. Big utilities in North Carolina must now get a portion of their power from renewable sources.

The financial arrangement like the one between FLS and the college is increasingly common, according to Lupo. But the tax credits and alternative energy mandates are new, and firms like FLS are just now starting to figure it out.

What happens when FLS has recouped its costs?

In 10 years, HCC will have the option of buying the entire solar power system. It will have another 20 years of life left at that point before the efficiency begins to degrade.

If HCC buys all the equipment, it can make its own energy, divesting itself of monthly power bills and making money by selling surplus power to Progress.

If HCC decides to let FLS keep operating the system, it becomes highly profitable for FLS since the firm will have paid off its capital investment. So HCC gets to renegotiate for lower rates on the solar thermal energy and a higher kickback off the solar energy sold to Progress.

What will it cost if HCC wants to take over the system 10 years from now?

No one knows right now. It’s impossible to say what the market value of a solar system like this will be 10 years from now. But FLS won’t be able to ask for whatever it wants. Language in the contract says the equipment will be offered to HCC at fair market value, which presumably would trigger a third-party independent appraisal of the equipment to determine what that is.

Why is HCC exceeding the state energy mandate?

HCC has to meet tough new state energy standards that apply to public buildings, thus requiring a certain level of alternative energy. However, HCC is going above and beyond what it has to in order to meet the state mandate.

But since it isn’t costing HCC anything to do so, why not? asked Michael Nicklas, the lead architect.

“We could improve the efficiency at no additional cost,” Nicklas said.

The building will qualify for a platinum LEED designation, the highest of all green building rankings, which has drawn fire from critics. Nicklas said a platinum rating was not their motive, however, but merely a side effect of designing a good building.

“It is not driven by the platinum rating,” Nicklas said. “If it ends up platinum, it’s because we were able to get a good deal on this solar.”

What is solar thermal?

Fluid, usually a combination of water and antifreeze, flows through coils on the roof of the building. The coils sit on a black surface under a clear glass lid. The black surface absorbs the sun’s heat and traps it under the glass. The heat builds and builds, like the greenhouse effect, and the fluid flowing through the coils heats up as a result.

“It could easily get to boiling temperatures, but more commonly 150 or 160 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Tommy Cleveland, a solar thermal expert at the N.C. Solar Center.

How hot depends on the strength of the sun’s rays and the air temperature.

How does that make hot water?

The coils carrying the hot fluid pass through a hot water tank, transferring the heat to the water.

How does it make heat for the building?

The coils flow under the floor, creating radiant heating similar to a radiator.

How does it make air conditioning?

The heat given off by the fluid in the coils will be captured to power an absorption chiller, a type of air conditioning system that is normally fueled by natural gas.

The fluid flowing through the solar thermal coils needs to be 154 degrees to power an absorption chiller, Freudenberger said. He claims it’s no problem achieving that temperature.

Using the BTUs created by solar thermal energy indeed works in theory.

“It can work and has been done other places but it is not very common,” Cleveland said, citing numerous projects in Germany. “It has been done and it has been made to work. Technically I think it definitely will work. The big question is economically and how well does it work.”

Absorption chillers take more energy and are less efficient than conventional electric air conditioning systems.

Is it a sure thing to make air conditioning using solar thermal?

Absorption chillers powered by natural gas are proven technology. Creating heat in the form of BTUs from solar thermal is also proven. This simply combines the two principles, Shore said.

“Energy is energy. Once you have energy in one form it can be converted,” Shore said.

What if it doesn’t work?

A traditional air conditioning system, as well as traditional hot water and heating systems, are part of the building design as a backup in case the solar thermal system doesn’t work, or for cloudy days and at night.

“No matter what, you have to do a back-up system that can handle the full load of the building,” said Freudenberger.

If it doesn’t work, FLS will be the one in trouble.

“They get paid based on the energy that’s there. If it doesn’t work, they don’t get paid,” said Nicklas. “You aren’t out anything. They are. It is not a matter of you taking any risk on this.”

Are there any costs to HCC?

There will be traditional back-up energy systems in the building, but those are part of the construction costs the college would have to pay for anyway — regardless of what solar components are sitting on the roof.

FLS will pay for the absorption chiller, as well as all the solar equipment, and even the additional wiring for the solar systems.

“Literally right to the junction point of the building,” Freudenberger said.

Does the building itself have to be designed in a special way, causing general construction costs to be higher?

Michael Nicklas, lead architect on the project and president of Innovative Designs out of Raleigh, said all the green features of the building, including things like the rain water collection system that aren’t part of the alternative energy component, added 4 percent to the building cost.

“It’s not as much as you would think,” he said.

Are there any pitfalls?

Cleveland said it’s not clear how efficient solar thermal energy is at powering absorption chillers. If it takes a lot of BTUs, it’s possible the solar thermal won’t be able to keep up and the back-up system will have to make up the difference.

There are two possible back-up systems: one is using natural gas to power the same absorption chiller, and the other is a traditional electrical air conditioning system. It costs more to power an absorption chiller with natural gas than it would to use a conventional air conditioning system.

“If Haywood is responsible for the natural gas costs the risk could fall on them,” Cleveland said.

But for now, the back-up system included in the plans is a conventional electric air conditioning system so that shouldn’t be an issue.

Cleveland has done economic modeling on absorption chillers versus conventional air conditioning to figure out the economic tipping point.

“There are several variables going on,” Cleveland said. “It depends on how much everything cost you up front.”

In HCC’s case, since they aren’t paying the upfront costs of the absorption chiller or the solar thermal system, then they should go for it, Cleveland said.

“It makes it fairly attractive to the community college,” Cleveland said.

What happens if FLS doesn’t make its loan payments?

County Commissioner Kevin Ensley was concerned if FLS didn’t make its payments, the bank may seize the solar equipment or take over the contract, leaving HCC in a bind.

But Shore said thanks to a forbearance agreement, the solar equipment itself is not the collateral for the loan. The equipment would actually revert to HCC if FLS went bankrupt — not to the bank that made the loan.

What are the intangible benefits?

Students will get to learn the ins-and-outs of alternative energy from a real-life example. HCC President Rose Johnson has made sustainability a focus of the college in recent years across every curriculum and in-campus operations.

“What better way to train the needed workers in the solar energy arena than at a community college,” Shore said.

Page 7 of 10

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