Lower Columbia College is making plans for a new nearly 55,000-square-foot vocational building to replace three older buildings on campus, but needs more state money before it break ground.
The fate of the project depends on how much funding the Washington Legislature decides to allocate toward capital projects, and college officials are optimistic LCC ranks high on a priority list.
Lower Columbia College President Chris Bailey said “the timing is good and the need is here,” so he’s excited and hopeful that the legislature will fund the initial design phase of the project this cycle.
“We’ve got a beautiful health and science building that’s well-equipped, a beautiful fitness center that’s well-equipped and a beautiful performing arts center that’s one of best in state, but the vocational science is the area where we’re the weakest in terms of building space and facilities,” Bailey said. “It’s definitely time.”
Capital projects at community and technical colleges are funded from a state priority list. Colleges submit a proposal to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The project is then scored, ranked and sent to Olympia. The governor evaluates the list and decides how many of the projects to fund in his proposed capital budget.
LCC’s project is number 15 on the list, and the governor’s proposed funding includes the top 28 projects, Bailey said, putting LCC “well within that margin.”
The house and senate still need to approve the capital budget, which is separate from the operational budget. Operating budgets pay for day-to-day expenses, while the capital budget pays for major capital, or investment, spending.
Vice President of Administration Nolan Wheeler said if a project ends up on even two of the proposed budgets it’s a good sign. LCC first submitted the proposal for the new building in 2017, he said, and if it gets the $3.2 million in design funding this round then ideally it would get the construction funding, about $30 million, in the next biennium.
“I’m really excited to hopefully receive the funds and be part of another major building project on campus,” he said.
The proposed building would replace the current vocational building, the former science building and the physical sciences building, all of which are at least four decades old, Bailey said.
“Those buildings were designed for lower enrollments in those times and a different industry standard, different equipment needs,” he said. “It’s really not suitable anymore.”
The new 54,799-square-foot Center for Vocational and Transitional Studies would house machining, welding, information technology and transitional studies, with other general purpose classrooms at the center.
Wheeler said the current vocational building actually is the former automotive repair lab, and was converted in the 1970s after the automotive program moved to the newly built Don Talley building.
“It will be more student-focused and student-friendly,” he said. “When you walk in the current vocational building, it’s long mazes of hallways. A lot of the newer educational concepts will be designed into the new space, like informal study spaces.”
The welding lab booths will be larger, Wheeler said, more in line with other schools, and there will be more powerful hookups so the college can have newer machines.
“The space will be a little more flexible so we can convert it to other uses,” he said. “There would be more power for higher tech equipment. In the welding lab in particular we’re looking at higher ceilings and better ventilation so it will be a safer environment.”
Bailey said the college also intends to fundraise through grants and private donations for better equipment “to make sure it’s modern and state of the art, similar to what we did for the health and science building.”
The multistory building would also allow the college to host more events, like the annual high school welding competition, and Bailey said the goal is “make it an incredible space for learning that’s our goal.”
The new building would also be built to newer earthquake standards, Wheeler said.
“These (current) buildings are built to a 1950s seismic standard,” he said. “This will make the building much safer in the event of a seismic event. We really focused on that in our proposal because we think that’s important. We should update all our buildings to more current standards.”
The location of the new building hasn’t been determined, Wheeler said, but would be part of the design process.
“In our project request, we didn’t iron down where it would go,” he said.
The current buildings are near the 15th Avenue parking lot, “but the challenge will be can we put it in the existing footprint? Because we can’t close our welding and machining programs for two years,” he said. “We’ll come up with all that in design process.”
Once construction starts, it will help generate jobs and give the economy a boost, Bailey said.
“Coming out of the post-COVID economy, there’s a need for stimulus and also a need for people to perhaps change their job skills,” he said. “This building will serve us for probably decades. I’m excited about it and we think it could be a game changer in terms of how we can deliver education in the local economy.”