By Cheryl Keenan
FOR THE REGISTER-HERALD
MONTGOMERY, W.Va. — WVU President Dr. E. Gordon Gee will recommend today to the WVU Board of Governors that the university close the WVU Institute of Technology campus in Montgomery in two years, moving it to Beckley.
Meeting with WVU Tech faculty and staff in one meeting, followed by a student meeting in Montgomery Monday afternoon, Gee pointed out his reasons for the proposal.
Jen Wood Cunningham, director of university relations at WVU Tech, said prior to the meetings that they would be closed to the public and the media and that university officials would have no comment on Monday.
According to Will McDermott, an information technology manager at WVU Tech, who agreed to talk to The Register- Herald, the primary reason for the move is finances.
“One hundred 17 million (dollars) in deferred maintenance is the big thing,” said McDermott.
Discussing the WVU Beckley campus, McDermott said, “That’s the kicker. (WVU) bought an $8 million campus that’s in much better shape.”
According to McDermott and a co-worker, the move is proposed to take place by the fall 2017 semester.
Kurt Latocha, a freshman from Morgantown majoring in civil engineering, embraces the move.
“I actually thought they had a thorough, thorough explanation” for the move, he said following the student meeting. Latocha, who plays baseball for the Golden Bears, says he has no concerns about the move, as all his credits will transfer to the Beckley campus.
According to Ray Rappold, Fayette County Adult Basic Education instructor at BridgeValley, which shares a Montgomery campus with WVU Tech, in Gee’s proposal to the BOG, the new school will be called “WVU Beckley, home of WVU Tech.”
Rappold, who grew up in the Upper Kanawha Valley and attended the meeting of students, sees the move as a devastating one, just one more blow to an area already ravaged by the decline of the coal industry.
“In a lot of ways it will decimate (the UKV),” he said.
The WVU Board of Governors will hear Gee’s proposal at a special meeting set for noon today in Morgantown. No definite decision will be made until at least that time.
Disappointment is the word Fayette County Commissioner Matt Wender used to describe his feeling on the closure.
“I’m disappointed this is the determination WVU has made and I’m disappointed it has taken so long for them to make this announcement,” said Wender. “They’ve known for a long time what the future will be in light of the purchase of the Beckley campus, and said nothing, leaving people to their own conclusion and speculation.”
Wender said the move will have a serious impact on the City of Montgomery. Many residents work at WVU Tech, and the area will suffer an economic loss from student spending.
“It’s not good for our county. It’s disappointing because we are dealing with so many financial issues. While WVU Tech doesn’t pay property taxes, many of the businesses who are supported by the school do. Not only will it affect Montgomery, it will affect the entire Upper Kanawha Valley and Fayette County.
“I’m looking for some good news out of this, but I don’t see any right now. It’s possible we might reuse those buildings in the future to benefit the community, but that is still down the road.”
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, said she has talked to community leaders and citizens and “their greatest concern is not only losing Tech and the school they’ve had so long, it is the impact it will have on the community of Montgomery. I know we have to do everything we can so that Montgomery isn’t left struggling economically due to the move.”
Kessinger said she understands the Board of Governors must still make a final decision, and Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette; Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette; and Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, will be attending the meeting in Morgantown today to speak on behalf of the community.
She said she has heard some in the community express concern over how a move might impact Montgomery General Hospital.
“A lot of nursing staff are students from Tech, and a move from Montgomery would have a major impact on the availability of staff in the area. Constituents have expressed concern about how the hospital could be affected.”
Fast also spoke out against the proposed move. “I do not support WVU’s proposal to move Tech to Beckley. No alternatives were considered such as moving the Guthrie Agriculture Center to Montgomery. Hopefully the WVU Board of Governors will not make a hasty decision, but will listen to and consider other options,” he said. “This 120-year-old institution is uniquely situated in Montgomery where it drives the economy for the Upper Kanawha Valley and lends support to the entire state of West Virginia through fine engineers and other professionals. It should not be uprooted.”
In Beckley, Mayor Bill O’Brien said he was hesitant to make any comments about the possible relocation of WVU-Tech until it’s been made official by the Board of Governors.
“I don’t want to take the wind out of their sails, but obviously it would be a big boost to WVU-Beckley.”
Whether or not Tech winds up in Beckley, O’Brien said he looks forward to seeing the good things WVU’s presence will bring to the area and the student population to come.
Gail Harlan, the former chair of Take Back Tech, a group of local residents and alumni who fought for nearly a decade to restore Tech to its former standalone status, Monday evening said the members of the now disbanded group hope that local representatives step up.
“It is our understanding that WVU intends to pull our fine 120-year-old institution out of Montgomery. I have full confidence that the senators and delegates for Fayette and Kanawha counties, the commissions in Fayette and Kanawha counties, and the prosecuting attorneys in those counties will prevent WVU’s stripping of this area of its most valuable asset, Tech in Montgomery,” she said.
Tech became a regional campus of WVU in 1996, and a full division of the university in 2007.
Reporters Wendy Holdren and Sarah Plummer contributed to this story.
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