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As Terms Expire, Some on Gateway Board Question Urban Campus Plans in Covington

EXCLUSIVE

The number of students expected to attend a planned urban metropolitan campus at Gateway Community & Technical College in Downtown Covington are being questioned by some members of the institution's board of directors.

Questions arose at the board's most recent meeting Thursday night, the final meeting of the current make-up of the board, all of whose terms have now expired. Governor Steve Beshear is expected to name new members or reappoint some current members in the coming weeks, but did not do so in his regular release of appointments on Friday. Several appointments were made to others institutions belonging to the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS).

"There is not enough money in the State of Kentucky and we are storming a lot of beaches at the same time which means we may have to throw the manufacturers or Covington overboard," board member Jeff Groob told Gateway Presdent & CEO Ed Hughes during the meeting. The comment came after Hughes presented enrollment and graduation figures from the Boon County campus where the school's manufacturing programs are based.

Those numbers disappointed multiple members of the board, including Groob.

"We're not going to see any money for Covington until we show something at the Boone campus. That's just the reality," Groob said. "If you want to see Covington succeed, we have to come up with some fix-it plan. There is no bigger economic lever in Frankfort than saying there is an unmet need. We have to have a credible answer to that question. We don't really have a credible answer of how we're going to get there."

Promotional materials for the planned $80 million urban metropolitan campus, announced late last year, include 3,500 students in Downtown Covington by 2015 and 5,000 by 2020, attending classes in several buildings recently purchased by Gateway throughout the urban core.

The meeting Thursday was held in the newly expanded Kenton County Public Library's Covington branch, a key component of Gateway's urban metropolitan campus plans since it is located across the street from the college's urban center.

The main focus of the meeting was a presentation Hughes and his staff had put together that they hope will lead to a plan to attract and graduate more students in specialized manufacturing programs.

One slide presented by Hughes indicated that eight students had graduated from programs in welding and computerized manufacturing & machining in the 2012-2013 academic year. That was down from thirty-one the year before.

Enrollment in those programs, however, is up, reaching an all-time high of seventy-four in the fall of 2012. The slide indicated that the increase in students has caused challenges for the school in meeting the demand. One option presented for consideration to address the challenge was the hiring of a new full-time instructor at $70,000, addition of $200,000 of new and upgraded equipment, and adding another 2,000 square feet of space, a proposal that would cause a deficit of nearly $35,000 if twelve new students enrolled (eight at full-time status). A second option would employ more part-time instructors, a proposal that would turn a modest profit for the school at nearly $10,000.

Regardless of the approach to be taken down the line, some on the board expressed concern that with many manufacturing jobs available in the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati, Gateway is not producing enough qualified workers as predicted.

"There are forty-eight graduates. We're in our fourth year," said board member Rick Jordan to Hughes. "You don't even have a gut feeling you're going to come close to the numbers sold on this. I'm just baffled that there is no vision."

A Cincinnati Enquirer editorial from 2003 in support of the development of a Gateway campus in Boone County cited figures that placed 5,000 students on the campus in six to eight years. There are currently 1,600 students on the Boone Campus. Throughout Gateway's campuses, there are nearly 5,000 students, ranking it eighth in enrollment among the sixteen institutions that make up KCTCS.

Jordan characterized the Boone campus as "empty".

"It's not empty," Hughes responded.

"It is. The students aren't there," Jordan said. "There six hundred eighty open positions (in local manufacturing)."

Jordan expected to see a plan Thursday to increase enrollment. Hughes laid out a path for developing such a plan. Hughes proposed a comprehensive evaluation of current and potential market penetration, development of a strategic marketing and recruitment plan, and a comprehensive evaluation of current and future academic co-curricular programs.

"We are working at holding people accountable and getting more people in the pipeline and through the pipeline faster," Hughes said.

"The numbers are so low," Groob said, "they are not meeting either the needs of the manufacturing community or the expectations that were set along the way by the institution. The only takeaway I can take is that the program is floundering."

Board member Richard Fowler argued that, "We didn't have the customer base that said this is what they needed or wanted. We had the business base that said this is what we need so you built the facility and we count on you to make them come."
 
"The problem is that the same mistake is now being made down in Covington," said Jordan. "In Covington, there's been a building plan developed. When this manufacturing center was proposed (in Boone Co.) there should have been a business plan put together: here's how we're going to get the students and here's how we're going to fill it up. A whole plan put together and laid out in front of manufacturers saying, don't just sign up for a building but here is what you need to do to change a perspective."
 
"Everything I've seen in Covington is a building plan," Jordan continued. "I don't see plans on how these low income folks are going to be able to afford college. It's my belief that the same mistake is happening again in Covington because there is no plan."
 
"We think having Gateway is going to solve our manufacturing problem. Because Gateway is not fulfilling the jobs we need, if one company moves out, it's going to be a huge issue with everybody. We have six hundred eighty open jobs now and we're going to get that with forty-eight or two hundred or three hundred graduates."
 
The Covington campus would feature programs in design, health care, cosmetology, and other specialized fields.
 
Board member Brent Cooper also argued against the notion that the Boone campus is empty. "I was there over the weekend and it was packed," Cooper said. "Some of this seems like perception to me." He argued that some of Gateway's students are hired directly by companies before completing the program.
 
Hughes agreed that Boone campus suffers a perception issue. "Early mornings you'll see a lot of students in welding, machine tool, and advanced manufacturing and if you come there at fort-thirty or five, you'll see a whole bunch of students because many of those students are working at night or in the morning before their shift," Hughes said. "If you drive by at one in the afternoon you may think, gee, there's not a lot of people there."

In an interview with The River City News following Thursday's meeting, Hughes explained the events of the evening further.

"We've been developing a concept of having a business plan that really tries to quantify a lot of things the college does and quantifies more predictability of where we anticipate growth, revenue and that sort of thing," he said. "At a previous meeting we spent a bulk of the meeting with the team that is developing the plan, the template."

"The point we were trying to make (Thursday) is to show the process of doing that. Several of the board members would have liked to have gotten there faster and actually had a set of numbers, (like) X number of graduates in these programs next year. Eventually we'll get to that. We just weren't there (Thursday).

The next board meeting is in February.

As for the urban metropolitan campus in Downtown Covington, Hughes still believes the enrollment projections. "I think what (the board members) were voicing is, do we actually have a plan in terms of can we predict how many students will be the programs. We already have the basis of what. When we developed this plan we did it around the academic needs of today, the short term (three to five years), and the long term," he said.

"So when we talk about the Abode building or Two Rivers building or the Marx building, the three we're working on now (in Downtown Covington), we know what programs are going in there, we know what enrollment is, and what the projected enrollment is for the next two to three years. We know these are growth programs and I think in the discussion (Thursday) that got lost."

At the Gateway Urban Center, there are 1,100 students enrolled in classes and at the facility on Amsterdam Road, which will close when the urban campus opens, has 1,300 students who will be moved Downtown. With those two enrollment figures combined, the urban metropolitan campus is already near its 2,500 by 2015 projections.
 
"That's the plan we have," Hughes said. "It's a pretty solid plan."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Hughes listens to board members/RCN