River Valley Community College seeks grant to explore building use options

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2019 10:32:39 PM
Modified: 4/4/2019 10:32:51 PM

LEBANON — River Valley Community College is looking to explore other uses for its Lebanon campus as declining enrollment, and a shift toward night classes leaves the building largely empty during the daytime.

The college, which also operates campuses in Claremont and Keene, is asking the city to sponsor a Community Development Block Grant that would provide $12,000 to study future uses for the 19,000-square-foot building on the city’s pedestrian mall.

Aside from classes, which would continue to be offered, options for the building include a co-working space or business incubator, River Valley officials told the City Council on Wednesday night.

“It’s utilized, but it’s underutilized, and our programs are primarily in the evening,” Charlene Ashey, the college’s interim supervisor and student services specialist, told councilors. “During the day, the building sits there.”

That’s partially because of the region’s low unemployment rate, which has resulted in fewer people seeking job training and other education programs, according to River Valley’s application to the city.

While the nation’s unemployment rate declined to 3.8 percent in February, the Granite State has fared even better. The statewide unemployment rate for the same month was 2.9 percent, and the Lebanon area’s rate was 2.3 percent, according to New Hampshire Employment Security.

The Lebanon campus used to see about 150 students sign up for classes per semester, but it is now averaging roughly 100, River Valley President Alfred Williams IV said on Thursday.

Aside from low unemployment, there’s also programmatic reasons for that trend, he said.

The college has tried to develop workforce programs in Lebanon that don’t always count as credit offerings, Williams said. It also restructured courses so the Claremont and Lebanon branches are no longer competing for students, he said.

For instance, River Valley’s massage classes are held in Keene and Lebanon, while Claremont is home to the majority of its medical assistant, laboratory technician and nursing programs.

“The reality of it is that River Valley’s enrollment across all of our campuses is stable,” Williams said, adding that enrollment has instead shifted as programs move.

The Community College System of New Hampshire, which oversees River Valley, purchased the Lebanon building in 2015 for $1.5 million and spent the next year renovating it.

Prior to that, the facility was one of two used by the now-defunct Lebanon College, which closed its doors abruptly in August 2014 after suffering financial difficulties and low enrollment.

That purchase was aided by federal funds and “based on a very high enrollment,” said Shelly Hatfield, a grant writer and consultant working on the River Valley application.

“That has not materialized there, and it’s partially because of unemployment,” she said. “So what we’re looking at is collaborating and finding a way to reuse the building.”

If the college’s grant is approved, it plans to work with the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, the city and the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce to either develop a business incubator or co-working facility, which would in turn complement its instructional offerings.

The technology center, a nonprofit located in Centerra Marketplace, houses about 18 businesses, many of which were started by Dartmouth graduates and professors who now work to develop high-tech businesses.

“We are absolutely, completely full up here right now, and we have a waiting list of businesses looking for space,” said Anne Duncan Cooley, CEO of the Grafton Regional Economic Development Corp., which co-owns the tech incubator.

“That got me thinking about where we might have space to help these businesses, and Lebanon’s an attractive place for people to start businesses,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Duncan Cooley said the city’s downtown has access to transportation, an abundance of parking and amenities that would draw many people to the River Valley campus. Making that happen is largely a matter of working out the details of a future partnership, which the proposed feasibility study looks to do, she said.

The City Council will hold a public hearing and take a formal vote on the grant application when it meets at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17, in City Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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