Appraisal halts Stevens College expansion
School seeks to buy former National Guard Armory from city Appraisal halts Stevens College expansion BY BERNARD HARRIS, Staff Writer
At the job fair at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology last year, representatives of 30 machine companies were trying to get the attention of the 12 machine shop students about to graduate.
Those companies weren't trying to get the best students. They were trying to get any of those students, said Stevens College president Dr. William Griscom.
And at the job fair in a couple of weeks, the scenario likely will repeat itself, Griscom said.
"They will pack the place, and they will aggressively try to recruit our students," Griscom said of the 125 employers expected to attend.
Companies are desperate for the skilled workers Stevens College produces, and the college can't produce them fast enough.
On the other side, Stevens received 3,032 applications last fall for 500 openings in the freshman class. Its less-than 20 percent acceptance rate is similar to that of Ivy League universities.
And it's the college itself, on 32 acres on the eastern edge of Lancaster city, that is the bottleneck.
There's simply no room to grow on the campus at East King and Chesapeake streets.
Griscom and Alumni Foundation Executive Director Alex Munro thought they'd stumbled onto the perfect solution last year: 4 acres where unused industrial buildings could quickly be converted to technical classrooms.
They found funding to buy the buildings and convinced the owners to sell. Then they ran into an unforeseen roadblock: a low appraisal.
The property, located within walking distance of the Stevens campus, is the former National Guard Armory on Chesapeake Street. The armory site reverted to Lancaster city ownership about two years ago after the guard built a new facility near Elizabethtown.
Griscom managed to convince city Mayor Rick Gray that the college had a "higher use" for the site than the city's plans for a maintenance facility for the city dump trucks, street sweepers and other vehicles.
Yet, Gray told them, he couldn't give it away. He owed it to city taxpayers to receive at least the $4 million to $5 million replacement cost: funds that would allow the city to build another maintenance facility.
The state-owned college received funds for expansion, and the rare, large city site near campus was worth that much or more to them, Griscom said.
But an appraisal, which considered the poor condition of nearby properties and the few comparable transactions, valued the armory at less than $1 million.
By law, the college cannot pay more than that amount and the city cannot take the loss of accepting it and spending $4 million more to build elsewhere.
"We have money to buy it. They want to sell it to us, but it just doesn't appraise," Griscom said.
Griscom and Munro said they have turned to the private sector in hopes the property could be purchased on the college's behalf.
They've sought funding from alumni, foundations and philanthropists.
Griscom said the college frequently receives grants from corporate foundations that value the technical education Stevens College provides.
But, he said, those grants fund small scholarships or programs. They have found nothing of the magnitude to allow the purchase.
Rather, he's hoping a deep-pockets donor would like to have a college building named in his or her honor.
"Only the philanthropic community can solve this, because we've exhausted everything we can do at the private sector," he said.
He noted that the college's mission -- handed down from its namesake, Thaddeus Stevens -- is to provide skills to lift people out of poverty. Fully half of Stevens students attend on need-based scholarships.
"It would change a lot of people's lives for a long time to come," Griscom said of donated funding.
Griscom said he would like to see the college double enrollment in six of its existing programs, including machine technology, metals fabrication and plumbing.
He'd also like to begin eight new programs, including diesel mechanics, welding and computer engineering.
The expansion and addition of those programs would help the college provide skilled workers needed by industries in Pennsylvania and strengthen the state's economy, he said.
"We should be graduating 600 kids a year minimum to begin to meet the demand in this area," he said.
Doing so would require more than doubling Stevens College enrollment, from about 900 students to 2,000.
Griscom has no doubt those students would get jobs.
The school, rated among the top 120 two-year colleges in the nation, has a placement rate of 95 percent. Most graduates take jobs with annual starting salaries of $50,000 to $60,000.
Some, in the positions most in demand, receive salaries of $100,000, he said.
He openly acknowledges those salaries are a function of demand -- the result of there being so few students graduating in those technical fields.