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Lebanon College Sees Future in Health; School Seeks City’s Support for Grant

Ronald Biron, Lebanon College’s president, on Sept. 14, 2012. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Ronald Biron, Lebanon College’s president, on Sept. 14, 2012. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Lebanon — Lebanon College will seek approval from the City Council next week to win its backing to apply for a matching $300,000 federal block grant that could provide the final push needed to establish a health education center on the mall.

The private college ,which awards associate degrees and certificates, is aiming to expand its medical training programs and locate them in the 5,100-square-foot former Shoetorium building on the mall that the college purchased for $725,000 in 2008, in order to train health professionals needed by area health care providers.

The center would be known as the School of Allied Health at Lebanon College, and would bring together existing programs in radiology and medical coding, as well as offer new training for surgical technicians, sonography and medical assistance.

Ron Biron, the college’s president who is approaching his first year on the job, said on Tuesday that the grant — administered by the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority — would be a “huge” boost for Lebanon College, which is seeking to dig its way out of more than $2 million in debt, much of which stems from the 2007 loan taken out in order to pay for the Shoetorium building.

Biron said the infusion of cash would allow the college to start construction on the allied health center as soon as January. Biron hopes that the construction will inspire more donors to open their wallets.

“They want to hear the hammers and the saws churning, and once that happens, I think we’re going to get a lot more impetus in the community,” Biron said. “But right now we’ve already had some really great support from community donors.”

Biron describes the proposed School of Allied Health as the “foundation” of his new vision for the college. The center would have five classrooms, three labs, lounges and administrative offices.

Lebanon College hopes to meet the local demand for qualified health care professionals at institutions such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital. Both health care providers spoke in support of the program when it was announced earlier in the year. The allied health center would eventually include more than half of the college’s education programs.

The grant would come as a one-to-one match for donated money, so the college would still need to raise about $300,000 in matching funds to get the Allied Health center up and running. It is seeking the city’s support because municipal approval is required to apply for the federal funds. If the college is unable to raise the matching amount of money, it is inelgible to receive the money.

But Biron said he is confident that the college will be able to persuade donors who have already committed some money to give more in a shorter window of time in order to meet the threshold. He added that the renovation of the former Shoetorium building could range from $400,000 to $600,000.

“We should be able to meet our goal,” said Biron. He said the college has already received commitments for more than $150,000 on its way to raising the $300,000 in matching funds.

If the City Council approves the application, the college would hope to file it by mid-to-late October. Biron said it would then go to the state community development authority and off to the governor’s desk, where it could be signed in December, clearing the way for money to start flowing in by early next year.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, who runs the Lebanon Diner on the mall, said the college is “very smart” to be moving in the direction of providing more training in health care, which she described as an “anchor industry in the Upper Valley.”

“It makes a lot of sense for the future and it makes a lot of sense for the industry and the area, and a lot of sense for the people in the area who need good jobs, so I think this is a great direction,” Liot Hill said. “I’m very hopeful and optimistic.”

Biron had initially hoped that the Allied Health center would be up and running by now, and was planning to take out a loan to pay for the conversion of the former Shoetorium building.

Unfortunately, Biron said, “Things didn’t happen that way.”

Biron said the college’s program empasis has shifted after a year at the helm of an institution still recovering from financial difficulties. The college is focusing less on smaller programs with lower enrollment, such as creative writing and photography, and more on educating future health professionals.

“The approach, the programs — we’ve pulled some back, we’re moving forward on allied health,” Biron said. “It’s exciting. It’s been fun, it’s been a great year. Wait until next year.”

Tom Read, who has worked in sales for Omer and Bob’s Sportshop for about 10 years, said he thinks having an influx of students downtown is a “great idea.

“You need some young blood around here,” Read said. “That would be, really, I think, very positive.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213