SARANAC LAKE - North Country Community College has asked Essex County supervisors and Franklin County legislators to form a joint committee to consider up to a $9 million bond match with the state for upgrades and renovations to its campus here.
The list of projects includes a college Welcome Center on Lake Flower Avenue, which won approval from the village Planning Board earlier this year after a lengthy review process.
Over the past month, NCCC President Steve Tyrell has met with elected officials from both counties to pitch the proposed Saranac Lake campus revitalization plan. Details are contained in an eight-page report that's been provided to county leaders.
"We are requesting a $9 million bond match for both counties to consider," Tyrell said Monday, Dec. 23. "The report is a starting point for both counties to come together with the formation of a joint committee that will meet on the Saranac Lake campus beginning here in the spring semester."
The report provides three funding scenarios for the counties to consider. In each scenario, the two counties would split half of the project's annual bond payment over 15 years, while the state would pay the other half.
Scenario one is a $3 million capital bond request that would fund the Welcome Center, estimated at $1 million to $1.2 million, plus infrastructure maintenance on the Saranac Lake campus. Under this scenario, the counties would each make an annual bond payment of $71,172 while the state's share would be $142,343.
In scenario two, the college would get $6 million to pay for the Welcome Center, infrastructure maintenance and $3 million of new construction and rehabilitation of facilities on the campus. The counties would each pay $142,343 per year, and the state would pay $284,686.
The third scenario is a $9 million bond that would fund the Welcome Center, infrastructure maintenance and $6 million worth of new construction and rehabilitation of facilities. Each county's annual bond payment would be $213,514. The state would pay $427,029 per year.
The report notes that the amount of capital funding the college is seeking is well below the $64 million plan it proposed in 2010 for the Saranac Lake campus. Phase one of that project was just over $34 million. The counties rejected that plan because of the fiscal constraints at the time.
Making the case
The report says the current condition of the Saranac Lake campus "is of great concern to the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community leaders.
"The college is not competitive with its peers when facilities become a focal point in student recruitment efforts and with encouraging students to remain at the Saranac Lake campus," the report states.
Since 2006, the counties have contributed a total of $602,000 toward improvements on the Saranac Lake campus, an average of $75,000 a year, which the state has matched. Combined with the money taken from its operating budget on capital maintenance, the college is spending between $200,000 and $300,000 a year on the Saranac Lake campus.
However, the report cites a 2009 study by SUNY found the college should spend $600,000 a year "to prevent a backlog of facilities issues from growing and an average of $800,000 a year for the next ten years to reduce the backlog by 50 percent."
"Even though we have moved forward, we're not moving forward at a pace where we're going to be able to continue to sustain the capital needs on the Saranac Lake campus," Tyrell told the Essex County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee recently.
The report compares what North Country has spent on capital projects to four other small community colleges: Clinton Community College, Fulton-Montgomery Community College, Suffolk County Community College and Columbia-Greene Community College. From 1999 to 2012, the other four colleges spent an average of $5.4 million, or $420,038 per year, on capital projects. Over the same period, North Country received $2.4 million in capital match funding, or an average of $185,385 a year.
Tyrell said North Country needs a more up-to-date Saranac Lake campus if it's going to compete with these and other colleges and recruit new students.
"We have a state-of-the-art 1970s campus in Saranac Lake which is outstanding, but it no longer serves our ability to recruit today," he said.
Graduation rates at high schools in the North Country continue to decline, Tyrell noted.
"We have to go outside," Tyrell said. "We are recruiting. We've put more resources into recruiting in the last year alone. We are increasing our marketing, redoing our webpage, get the great stories out there about the students in the area doing great things, but when we want to bring them here we have nothing to show them, because they're still looking at what we have compared to what other folks have."
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said he understands the Saranac Lake campus needs improvements, but he questioned why the college needs a Welcome Center.
Tyrell said the facility would be a one-stop shop for student services, including admissions and financial aid, that are currently spread across several offices on the campus. He also said the location off of Lake Flower Avenue would help showcase the college to prospective students.
"It has both a recruiting opportunity for us and a retention opportunity, and that's the purpose of it," he said.
Scozzafava asked why the NCCC Foundation, which purchased the properties for the Welcome Center, can't take on the project. Tyrell said it could, but it would be financially more viable for the college to undertake it as part of a larger Saranac Lake campus upgrade.
"I can understand the need for the rehab," Scozzafava said. "But I think we need to prioritize as to what's actually needed that will enhance the college and increase enrollment. Maybe the Welcome Center would be a huge boon to the college; I don't know."
"I think the complex is in desperate need," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas. "I know you're having a hard time competing with Clinton and Hudson and all the other community colleges in the area. It is something that, if we're going to be in the college business, we need to improve it."
Douglas added that the counties would have to prioritize the parts of the plan that are affordable.
The college had hoped to have a joint committee of county leaders formed to consider its plan by now, but Tyrell said supervisors and legislators have been busy putting together their 2014 budgets and dealing with other issues, "which is understandable.
"We'd like to move soon, but we have to let the process unfold for the counties," he said. "It's left to them to have their internal conversations and let us know what they can do."