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Montgomery ponders life after WVU Tech moves to Beckley

By JAKE JARVIS

Charleston Gazette-Mail

MONTGOMERY, W.Va. — How do you move an entire college campus?

Carolyn Long, the president of the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, is still trying to figure that out. There’s no road map to follow, no handbook to read. Long and her faculty and staff members are working double-duty to figure out how to pack the entire school and move it 40 miles south to the new Beckley campus.

The WVU Tech campus currently sits on a hill overlooking the town of Montgomery. The school is moving to Beckley.
(Photo by Kenny Kemp)

“As far as we know, this has never been done before,” Long said. “Never like this — this fast.”

In the 1950s, Wake Forest College took about a decade to move from Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, about 100 miles west.

For now, professors sit with packed boxes in their offices and classrooms. There was discussion of bringing in a company to assist with the move, but Long said there wasn’t enough room in the budget.

Staff members move what they can when they can so when the fall semester starts and absolutely everything needs to be moved, there isn’t a mad dash to move everything at once. Not everything can fit in the new campus.

Long sits behind a mammoth wooden desk in her office at the Montgomery campus.

“I won’t even be able to bring this thing with me,” Long said, grasping the edge of the desk. “But I’m not upset about it, because, you see, we shouldn’t be focused on whether or not we have a big desk in a big corner office. We need to focus on keeping the family culture we’ve developed here for years, and we will.”

While staff members and students of WVU Tech prepare to begin their last semester at the Montgomery campus, the people of the town are left wondering what will happen to their community once the school leaves.

Many in Montgomery said they feel they’re being left behind, and it isn’t fair to for the city to lose the school, which is a large part of the city’s identity. The city’s mayor, Greg Ingram, tries to stay positive, but he understands why people are upset.

“We lost our coal industry, the federal government took that. We lost our school, the state government walked in and took that,” Ingram said. “We can’t let the government walk in and walk all over us any more. I’ll tell you this, Montgomery is coming back — it won’t be the same, but it’s going to come back.”

But Ingram is realistic. He said it could take time to find an entity interested in the WVU Tech property, which makes up large chunk of the town. It could even be better for the city, Ingram said, if a commercial business would take over the property and start paying taxes to the city.

“I’m reasonably sure, and it’s certainly not my announcement to make, but I’m sure there are people who will take the buildings, which could be a positive thing for the region and will mean jobs,” Ingram said. “That’s what we need: jobs. I believe whatever goes in those buildings has to create jobs.”

In November 2015, WVU Tech employed 237 full-time and 37 part-time employees, according to documents from the school.

Long said every employee who works for the school has been guaranteed a job at the new Beckley campus, and many professors have already signaled they will stay on the staff. Several professors already commute to Montgomery for their classes.

Ingram said he did not know of any firm plans for any entity to move into the campus’ building and would not speak about whether an entity has shown interest in the property.

Though Ingram said he believes the best days for his town are yet to come, not everyone shares that optimism.

Charles Stephenson, who cuts hair at the barbershop and beauty salon across the railroad tracks from the college, worries about his town.

“People are really going to hurt in this town once the college is gone,” Stephenson said. “People have invested their whole lives in this town, and now the biggest part of it is moving away.”

Stephenson said he worries about the housing market.

Take the barbershop — he said students have lived in the upstairs apartments for years. They come to him for haircuts, they spend money at the gas station around the corner and they’re usually the only people you see walking around the town, Stephenson said.

Ingram said the people don’t always see the government working to brighten the city’s future.

WVU Tech promised to give Montgomery its Marina on the Kanawha River. Ingram said the town is going through the process to extend its city limits to take on the property and will go before the Kanawha County Commission this month for approval.

Ingram said the town also has applied for a $6 million grant to install a new aquatic learning center, which, among other things, would provide more recreational activities for the town.

“Who knows if we’ll get it or not, but we’ve applied for something like that before,” Ingram said. “And if we don’t get it this year, we’ll stay after it next year.”

Although WVU Tech has to maintain the property for at least 10 years, Ingram did admit the property could sit vacant. He doesn’t spend time worrying about that, he looks ahead.

“I believe that looking back isn’t going to do anybody any good. The school was here for 120-some years, WVU saw fit to move it to Beckley,” he said. “Looking back isn’t going to do anything for us.”

Long is looking forward. She and her staff are deciding which equipment to take with them. She said they’ll keep all the traditions created throughout the years alive in Beckley.

“What makes WVU Tech special is the sense of family, that sense of community we have,” Long said. “We’re not leaving that behind.”

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

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