Representatives from Wilkes Community College at the Oct. 7 Ashe County Board of Commissioners’ meeting proposed using the Leviton building as an extension of their Ashe Campus to serve growing demand for customized workforce training, and for retraining soon-to-be laid-off Gates Corp. workers.
“Being the presumptive workforce developer in the region, we’re most interested in trying to assist those individuals,” said WCC President Dr. Gordon Burns.
Burns said extension of WCC’s Ashe Campus was a high priority in the college’s 2008 facilities master plan, which recognized the need for potential expansion of the existing campus to accommodate future growth and development.
Dean of WCC’s Ashe and Alleghany campuses Chris Robinson suggested a retrofit of the Leviton building, also known as the Sara Lee building, as a low-cost opportunity for the college to grow without funding a new facility, and add needed programming for local workforce development.
Located in Jefferson, the 100,500 square-foot manufacturing facility was deeded to the non-profit Ashe County Job Development Inc. by Leviton April 1, 2009, after they ceased operations there. The building is currently leased by Gates as storage space.
Robinson, an ACJD board member, said WCC’s fall enrollment is its second highest ever. “One of the programs that is the most rapid-growing, and the one that is the fullest, is our Applied Engineering program,” he said.
“That’s the good news: we’re meeting a workforce demand. The bad news is that it’s a program that is very space- and equipment-intensive,” he said.
“What we’re looking at come spring semester is, with Gates closing, with them being approved for TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) benefits, we expect several of those folks will choose to come back to school,” he said, adding that WCC estimates 100-125 former Gates employees could enroll next year.
Robinson said WCC had recently met with GE Aviation to develop customized training for future and current employees who will require new skills as part of GE’s planned expansion in West Jefferson. GE plans to hire over 100 new employees over the next three years, he said.
With WCC’s existing campuses bulging at the seams, and enrollment expected to increase substantially, Robinson said, “we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to put these people, where we’re going to park them.”
“We may be able to use some state dollars through the customized training program for GE to help support a rental of space, probably not in full,” he said, adding that state dollars for training could not be used for facility retrofit.
Addressing the board, Robinson said, “We are not fortunate enough to sit on a big fund balance…we would have to partner with the county, it would have to be your choice as to whether that’s a possibility for us.”
Commissioner Judy Poe voiced approval for the concept, saying “I like the idea of using the old Leviton plant.”
Robinson said WCC would do “due diligence” looking into the requirements of the proposal, and report their findings to board at a later date.