STEM center study sparks debate

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Monday morning the Person County commissioners approved the recommended Capital Improvement Plan in a 4 to 1 vote.

The CIP serves as a planning tool for implementing large, capital projects and includes projects costing $50,000 or more from county departments, Piedmont Community College and Person County Schools.

An estimated $6.37 million would be allocated for funding projects in the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Although a PCC study would cost the board an estimated $54,000, it generated a lot of discussion over the idea of dishing out thousands of dollars for a feasibility study some commissioners say may not generate any concrete action over the years to come.

The study is intended to examine PCC’s request for an advanced manufacturing technical STEM center.

According to Assistant County Manager Sybil Tate, the study would address the level of need, facility space and provide a cost analysis.

The study was recommended after County Manager Heidi York said they took the STEM project itself off the list due to the high cost of purchasing new land and a new building.

Building the STEM center would cost an estimated $32 million.

The study’s results would let the board know whether it should proceed with developing the project.

However, at the last meeting board members raised concerns as they did at this meeting, over the fact if funding the feasibility study would result in a commitment to funding the hefty price for the project.

“I mean the study could come back and say ‘Yes it is a go.’ But if we don’t have $32 million then it is a no go anyway,” said county commissioner Ray Jeffers at the board’s April 1 meeting.

At Monday’s meeting, Jeffers raised similar concerns and explained later why he voted against funding for the feasibility study.

“I don’t think we have come to a consensus yet that we want to do the project and so I don’t know why we are spending money to study it when we are not committed yet to funding the project.”

He believes the board’s priorities should be on renovating Person County Schools.

“Our secondary schools are 70 years old and we have already identified deficiencies in them as a far as needing renovations and improvements. We addressed some of that today with ADA improvements but our children should be in an environment conducive to learning and I think that is what we should concentrate on first,” said Jeffers.

The study could be a critical step toward bringing PCC’s labs and equipment to up to date, assist with the county’s growth and help PCC answer questions about what kind of training space regional employers say they need today and assess the cost effectiveness of renovating existing campus spaces.

“I think it is a valid request going forward, looking at economic development and looking into the future,” said county commissioner Gordon Powell.

After the completion of the study, it is anticipated that the board will start seeing smaller requests first, such as bringing PCC’s labs and equipments up to speed.

“I might anticipate after this study was conducted that we would see a follow up request to start implementing this gradually without having to bite off that $33 million dollar project,” said York.

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