Johnston voters asked to weigh role of college

Campus seeks $10 million in Johnston referendum

CorrespondentApril 20, 2005 

This summer, Johnston Community College will open a new biosciences center in Clayton, where graduates can cross U.S. 70 to find work at Talecris Biotherapeutics or Novo Nordisk. Meanwhile, out on Devil's Racetrack Road, the college runs a nature preserve complete with a pig-hunting season.

It's farm-tech meets high-tech at the highest seat of learning in Johnston County. And when Johnston County voters go to the polls May 10, they will take a sober look at what role the campus plays in a changing economy. It is one tied as much to heavy-equipment welders as to lab-coated biotechnicians, as much to the stock market in Jakarta, Indonesia, as to the price of tobacco at the Smithfield auction houses.

The community college's $10 million bond issue on the May 10 ballot is part of a $50 million master plan that could seal the school's bid to train Johnston County technicians and welders to compete on a global scale, all while adding to the rural county's intellectual heft. That is, if Johnstonians think the improvements are a proper investment.

"We're constantly looking at areas of community need, and part of the evidence of how well we've done that job will be the bond referendum," said Al Warrick, director of the Johnston County Community College Foundation.

If the bond issue passes, the college plans to buy 47 acres adjacent to the Smithfield campus for $500,000 from school benefactor Bill Smith for future parking lots and room for three more buildings.

Construction would begin promptly on a $5.7 million emergency services building to train law enforcement personnel and a $4.3 million health services building that would mix physics and biology labs with nursing and massage therapy classrooms.

Plans to grow

Few will mistake the campus for one in the Ivy League, though it's about to offer its first four-year bachelor of science degree, in collaboration with N.C. State University. The mat at the entrance of the college president's office reads: "Fishing Buddies Welcome Here."

Enrollment -- 5,853 full-time students and 9,285 in continuing education -- is growing at about 6 percent a year. Adding to its core classes, running from medical office administration to truck driving, the school plans to offer degrees in new areas such as surgical technology.

As part of the broader plan, the community college aims to build a small convention center and cabins at Howell Woods, a $5.5 million, 2,800-acre preserve.

"There's so much going on here now that people are starting to call it 'Johnston University,' " said Christopher Cox, a general education student from Selma.

The $10 million in bond financing is not all that college officials wanted. They originally requested $35 million, but that was quickly reduced after more dramatic space needs became evident in the K-12 system.

Moreover, rising construction costs and a recent county property tax revaluation have some officials worried about a taxpayer backlash. "Vote Yes -- Twice," has become the community college's slogan, in reference to the $85 million bond issue for the county school system, also on the May 10 ballot.

A changing county

The stakes are high, said community college President Donald Reichard.

Still, the community college's mix of classes and degrees mirrors what's going on in the lives of Johnston residents -- especially those about the college's average student age of 29. For one thing, officials say, the region's agricultural heritage, inherited by the sons and daughters of farmers, is now blending into the pharmaceutical business, where plant DNA is increasingly being mined for medicines.

In February, Reichard led a North Carolina community college delegation to Thailand, only a few months after he toured biotechnology schools in Ulster and Leicester as part of a government grant. Johnston County faces international competition for biotech jobs.

"These biotech companies are from all over the world, and they don't have to come here to Johnston County," Reichard said. "If we don't keep up on the education side, the only differential between our workers and those around the world will be the pay scale, and we'll get beat."

But some students say the challenge is being met, for the most part.

"The instructors are passionate about their subjects and are well-rounded in what they teach," said Jami Breeden, 19, a biotech student from Clayton.

Cox, a former film student at NCSU, sees a simmering energy at the school, for which he credits the county's dramatic economic changes.

Education in Johnston County, he said, is simply in high demand. "You see a lot of people out here trying to do better," he said.

(This is the second report in an occasional series on the May 10 bond referendum in Johnston County.)

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