Within a matter of months, relocation of the Lanier Technical College campus in Oakwood to another site in Hall County became more than just an idea, with $10 million allocated in the state budget for design and land acquisition costs.
“The earnest discussion started during the legislative session this year,” said Dr. Ray Perren, president of Lanier Tech.
While the funding is akin to seed money for a startup business — millions more will be needed to construct and furnish new facilities at a new location — it also reflects a commitment from which there appears no turning back.
The reasons given about why the college needs to relocate are many, depending on whether it’s college officials, local business representatives or state
Constructed in the mid-1960s, Lanier Tech’s image is reflected in the one-story, ranch-style buildings that house its classrooms. And this serves as a starting point for the push to relocate the college.
Lanier Tech essentially shares its campus with the University of North Georgia, and though Perren acknowledges the benefits this “partnership” has had, he believes the college needs to stand on its own.
“... We want to be identified as Lanier Technical College, not as part of another institution,” he said.
But it’s more than just looks. College officials have long complained about outdated facilities, lack of room to grow and the need to modernize as business and industry workforce demands evolve.
“We believe we are a major part of workforce and economic development in this state,” Perren said. “We want to be sure we’re doing everything we can to provide a 21st century training experience ... for 21st century jobs.”
Whatever the practical needs, other motivations for relocating are apparent, too.
Gov. Nathan Deal was instrumental in getting the initial funding approved.
“This is his legacy,” said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said that while Hall County doesn’t get everything it wants because Deal sleeps in the governor’s mansion, “there are some times” when his influence has been evident.
Deal, as governor, is chairman of the State Properties Commission, which will have to sign off on any land purchase for the college’s relocation.
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the mere appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided, adding he’s confident all parties involved in any land deal for the college will “work very hard and very diligently to avoid even a perception of anything that was improper.”
2 colleges could benefit
Perren said his focus is squarely on acquiring the best land possible for Lanier Tech to remain relevant for another 50 years or more.
“I don’t know who owns what in the county,” he added. “Our goal is to get the piece of property that is best suited for this college to thrive for generations to come.”
Finally, Lanier Tech’s relocation could also be a boon for UNG and its own expansion plans.
“I think that would be a big part of it,” said Dunahoo, whose district includes the university and college.
While it’s possible Lanier Tech buildings could be used for the university’s needs, UNG officials aren’t yet considering specifics.
“Right now there is a lot of speculation about what might happen with Lanier Tech’s campus, but that’s all it is,” Kate Maine, UNG associate vice president of university relations, told The Times in an email. “Lanier Tech’s relocation is likely to take a few years, as property has to be identified, plans developed and facilities built. So, it’s premature to know the specifics of that timeframe or if UNG might have the opportunity to repurpose those facilities after they are vacated.”
Specifics, however, are just what is needed to sell the relocation of Lanier Tech, something college officials spelled out during a recent tour of the campus facilities and classrooms with The Times.
What is the need?
Lanier Tech has more than 40 general program areas, and multiple disciplines within them, leading students toward degrees and certificates that prepare them for careers.
With more than 1,500 students from Hall County and a total enrollment of more than 5,200 across its five campuses, Lanier Tech is essential to maintaining the workforce of several local industries, including health care and manufacturing, said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.
The college’s “service area,” Perren said, includes almost 600,000 people across seven counties: Hall, Forsyth, Lumpkin, Dawson, Barrow, Banks and Jackson.
Perren said he hopes to increase enrollment over the next decade or so to 12,000 students, with relocation of the main Oakwood campus essential to meeting this goal.
Christian Tetzlaff is an instructor in the motorsports vehicle technology program, which trains individuals to work on NASCAR, Indy car and sportscar pit crew race teams. He said his classroom is too cramped to meet the needs of students going forward.
“We have literally no room ...” he said, with students stepping over each other to make carbon-fiber composites for race cars, for example.
Tetzlaff was once a student at Lanier Tech. He graduated about 10 years ago but said that even then some of the college’s facilities were dated.
Another obstacle for Teztlaff’s students is the makeshift welding lab, a space never intended for this work but converted to house a larger program. The lab has poor ventilation, Perren said, and its limited size means additional students cannot be added to the program.
“We try not to show this to new and expanding industry,” Evans said.
Other needs involving upgrades and expansions identified by college officials include the machinery, electrical and industrial training labs.
There is an “acute shortage” of personnel trained to manage today’s manufacturing technology, Evans said.
Additionally, college officials hope to build out a replica surgeon’s lab and emergency room at a new campus to better mirror real-life conditions for students in health care and public safety programs.
The health care industry employs thousands of workers in Hall County, and hundreds of openings in the industry currently exist, Evans said.
As local workforce demands change, Perren said there is pressure to keep up by ensuring that students have a level of expertise to meet employers’ needs.
“I don’t want to even begin to send the message we can’t do a good job with what we got because we can,” he said. “But we can do better if we have more modern facilities.”
Evans said local employers want assurances that Lanier Tech’s career training programs are on par with their needs and standards, making a relocation, expansion and overhaul of classrooms and equipment necessary.
Relocating and building a new campus will also help Lanier Tech expand the number of programs it offers, Perren said.
For example, in the coming years he expects to add training for commercial truck driving as well as automobile, hospitality, tourism and wildlife management technician programs.
“If there were a rocket factory (in Hall County), we would have a program for it ...” he said.
What are other options?
Calls for Lanier Tech to either renovate its existing facilities or construct new classrooms on campus have been rejected by Perren, Evans and others as unrealistic.
“Yeah, you can move things around and tear a wall out … but you’re still in a 1965 building that you can’t put 2015 technology into,” Perren said, adding that new carpet, paint and other cosmetic fixes won’t do the trick. “If you’ve got to completely overhaul it, why not build a new one?”
Moreover, Evans said razing existing buildings would put a halt to programs and classes, as new construction could take up to 18 months to complete.
Perren said it’s possible that a new campus might operate alongside the existing one for a short time as Lanier Tech tries to meet its students’ demands during such a transition. But he said adding buildings and infrastructure to the current property would require major reconfigurations and the elimination of some parking.
That piecemeal approach is not ideal, he added.
Perhaps the biggest aspect of the relocation is finding a site that provides easy access to main arterial roadways in the county, Perren said.
“Our main priority is that it’s accessible,” he said.
But access is also one of the reasons why critics say Lanier Tech should remain put. Huge public investments have been made to provide easy access to both Lanier Tech and UNG from exit 17 off Interstate 985.
Dunahoo said he believes relocating Lanier Tech to the northern part of the county, perhaps off Interstate 985’s Exit 24, is the best option because that is where many think the trend lines of future growth for Hall are pointing.
Additionally, moving farther south could force Lanier Tech into greater competition with Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville.
Perren said he would like to acquire between 65 to 75 acres for a new campus, with specific land needs including connection to sewer and telecommunications infrastructure.
While no specific site has yet been identified, Perren said he is aware of some properties that may be available.
How much will it cost?
The state budget includes $10 million in bonds and $865,000 in state general funds to purchase property and design the new campus in Hall County.
While college and state officials are in the beginning stages of evaluation, making it unclear what the total price tag for the relocation will be, it’s obvious that the $10 million “will be a drop in the bucket,” Miller said.
Perren said any land deal will include an initial appraisal, and that officials would be seeking qualifications for a team to design the new campus soon. He expects a design firm will be selected sometime this summer.
Rogers said the state is likely to pony up more money to construct the new campus facilities in the coming years.
Perren said the college’s foundation would likely support equipment purchases for the new and expanded campus but would not be asked to pay for construction costs.
Ideally, Perren said, he’d like to have a new campus open to students by the beginning of the fall 2018 academic year.
“We certainly hope to acquire the land at some time in the near future, but we don’t want to rush and get the wrong piece of property,” he added.