“Empty,” “ghost town,” “sparse” – those were words used by Guilford County officials to describe the Don Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) recently.
After the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and county staff held a two-day annual retreat at the Cameron Campus in early February, some county officials were buzzing about the new facility – not about how beautiful it is, which it is, or about its teaching tools, which are impressive – but instead the conversations were about how empty it was.
During the retreat, the commissioners and county staff wandered the halls of the large building during breaks and they were amazed to see no classes in session and only a few people walking in the halls of the two-story, nearly 93,000-square-foot Business and Industry Building. That facility was built with the stated intention of educating the growing population in northwest Guilford County, but it appears as though it has currently got a lot of space to educate a lot more people than it does.
Some county officials commented that this was particularly striking given the packed nature of GTCC’s Jamestown Campus – where an open parking space anywhere near a building is a very rare find and even walking through the halls at times can be a problem due to the throngs of people.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips is a member of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA), which meets at the $45 million Cameron Campus each month, and he has joked twice publicly about the large building that seems to stay mostly empty.
At the Guilford County Board of Commissioners retreat in early February, when Guilford County school system officials were talking about needing space for a new vocational high school, Phillips said that perhaps the schools could just put the proposed program at the Cameron Campus. Given the lack of students in the facility that day Phillips may very well have been half-serious.
“It was pretty much a ghost town all day,” Phillips said of the campus after the commissioners retreat.
A couple of weeks later, when Phillips was attending a GCEDA meeting at the Cameron Campus – and there were a good number of cars in the parking lot – Phillips asked GTCC President Randy Parker, who was also at the meeting, if he had instructed many of his staff to come to Cameron Campus that morning to make the facility appear full.
“We rented cars,” Parker joked back, referring to the relatively full parking lot. Parker added that his staff was also told be there “on the mark.”
Phillips said that, when he was leaving the commissioners retreat one day, he did see some people coming into the building so perhaps it was used more at night, but he added that it is striking to walk through the facility in the day. He said it’s certainly an issue that many county schools are in need of repair and GTCC has a new, wonderfully built campus with lots of parking that doesn’t appear to be getting the type of use it should.
“The takeaway for us, and for me, is that we have a $40 million plus wonderful educational facility that’s dramatically underused,” Phillips said. “It’s a huge investment.”
County taxpayers funded the building with bond referendums voters approved in 2004 and 2008.
Other commissioners who had attended the retreat had the same reaction.
Commissioner Alan Branson said, “I do think that particular facility at this point is not well used.”
The campus is close to Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) and Branson said he hopes that it can be used at for aviation-related vocational training, “if something were to pop at the airport.”
Commissioner Justin Conrad also commented on the need to put the building to better use.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” Conrad said. “I‘d like to see them figure it out. They built it right. It’s a wonderful asset.”
GTCC has five campuses in Guilford County. The main one is the Jamestown Campus that dates back to the 1950s. Then there’s a downtown High Point Campus, a Greensboro Campus on East Wendover Avenue, the Cameron Campus in Colfax and a specialized Aviation Campus at PTIA. That site is, in actuality, three different areas at the airport. The airport is about five miles from the Cameron Campus.
According to Parker, the Cameron Campus comes in fourth on the usage scale. He said it’s used more than GTCC’s Airport Campus, which is for highly specialized training related to the aviation industry.
Parker said GTCC does get good use out of Cameron Campus even though the nature of the classes there makes its use less apparent than the use of other campuses. He said the campus will often be the site of two- or three-day continuing education classes or it will be used for night classes for adults, and he added that the traffic flow in the building isn’t the same as a typical college campus – where classes get out at the same time and therefore the halls are filled between classes. He also said there’s a large auditorium at Cameron Campus that gets good use.
“We do have traditional college courses out there,” he said. “There are continuing education programs there as well.”
Carla Kucinski, public information officer/interim director for GTCC, wrote in an email that the school does not have “hard data on how many people access our individual campuses.”
It is possible to see how many classes are being held on each campus by checking the school’s course listings for the 2017 spring semester. The school’s course catalogue lists 957 courses held at the Jamestown Campus, 225 at the Greensboro Campus and 107 at the High Point campus and 42 at the highly specialized Aviation Campus. There are 18 listed as being held at the Cameron Campus. Most of those classes meet for about three hours a week.
The auditorium at the Cameron Campus is a very nice one – and the rest of the facility as well is top quality, but clearly commissioners and others want to see the $45 million investment being put to better use. A walk around the first and second floor during the Thursday and Friday retreat at noon, while GTCC is in session, showed empty halls, locked empty rooms and a few people using a second-floor computer lab. And at almost every meeting held out there since it opened about two-and-a-half years ago, attendees can usually take their choice of open parking spots right next to the building’s entrance and then walk to their meeting room rarely seeing anyone once inside.
Unlike the Jamestown, Greensboro and High Point campuses – which have a student store/bookstore open Monday through Friday, the Cameron Campus’ store is open only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and on those days only from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5:30 p.m.
The Cameron Campus is in Commissioner Hank Henning’s district, and Henning said one thing that needs to be pointed out is that the Cameron Campus project – which originally called for several more buildings on the 95 acres of land at the site – had been scaled back from the initial plans.
“We should give Dr. Parker credit where credit is due,” Henning said.
Henning said Parker had inherited the Cameron Campus project and scaled it back considerably. Henning also said that the current Republican-led Board of Commissioners came in in late 2012 after this project was well on its way.
Henning, like many other commissioners, said he’s optimistic that the relatively new campus can be put to good use once some logistical matters are worked out and as the northwest part of the county continues to grow. Many commissioners commented on what a well-built and aesthetically striking facility the building is.
The lone building constructed by GTCC on the 95-acre Cameron Campus, which includes a lake, is the Business and Industry Building that opened in fall 2014. The large two-story building has classrooms, conference rooms, meeting spaces, computer labs, a “model warehouse,” a 250-seat auditorium and a library.
Promotional material for the campus states, “The information technology infrastructure in this building is significant and advanced, making it a perfect fit for the high-tech computer programs offered at this site.”
The campus was named for Donald W. Cameron, who ran GTCC from 1991 to 2011.
Commissioner Ray Trapp said one drawback to that location in the northwest part of the county is that the campus isn’t on the public transportation grid. Trapp said that prevents a lot of people from using it.
“It’s tough when you have a facility that’s not on public transportation,” Trapp said.
Parker said GTCC has explored public transportation issues.
Trapp said he does know the Cameron Campus is used some because he once took a real estate class out there. Trapp said his class was a morning class but he added that his teacher told him she did not like going out to Cameron Campus to teach at night because there were so few people there in the evening.
Parker said that using the criteria “number of people accessing our campus facilities,” the Jamestown Campus comes in the highest. “Most of the programs are there,” he said.
“The next highest is Greensboro,” Parker said of usage. “It’s served by the city bus program. A lot of traffic through that system comes through the Greensboro [bus] system to that campus.”
The third most used, he said, was the High Point campus.
“That campus is kind of land-locked,” he said of the difficulty of expanding there.
The Cameron Campus is fourth in usage, Parker said, with the Airport Campus being the least used because of the specialized nature of the classes that train pilots, aircraft mechanics and others working or seeking jobs in the aviation industry.
Parker added that there are roughly 170 other locations, such as fire departments or classrooms in other facilities that the community college uses to teach classes.
“Our goal is to get out into the community,” he said.
Voters approved $47 million in 2004 and $79.5 million in a 2008 for GTCC.
Guilford County Cash and Debt Manager Clay Hicks provided a breakdown of the bond money that went into Cameron Campus.
“Funding for the Cameron Campus project,” Hicks wrote, “is as follows: we had $19.3 million budgeted for that project from the 2004 referendum and $50.5 million from the 2008 referendum. $3.2 million in the Transportation Classroom project budget was moved to the Cameron Campus project in September 2008 bringing the total to $73 million.”
Hicks added that $44.7 million was spent on Cameron Campus.
Parker said the initial plans called for four buildings but the cost and design ended up coming in much higher than anticipated and GTCC was forced to scale back, and, in that process, it became clear a large Center for Advanced Manufacturing now under construction was less costly if moved to the former Daimler Bus warehouse next to the Jamestown Campus.
Commissioners are optimistic the Cameron Campus will be better utilized in the coming years.
“It’s definitely not at capacity,” said Commissioner Alan Perdue. “It appears there’s opportunity for growth out there. I’m not sure what they are planning for that in the future.”
One commissioner said the current improving economy isn’t conducive to large community college growth.
“The improving economy means fewer people going into the [community college] system,” he said.
“It opened right at the wrong time,” said one commissioner who asked not to be identified.
Another county official said that, since the northwest is growing, even if the school isn’t getting full use out of that campus right now, it will no doubt be used heavily in the years to come.
Parker said the Cameron Campus has plenty of room for growth in the future when it’s called for: “There is space for eight or nine buildings.”