WHEELING - The result of five years of planning, property negotiation and construction was on display Monday as West Virginia Northern Community College unveiled its new applied technology center in downtown Wheeling.
College officials said the former Straub Honda showroom at the corner of 16th and Market streets will be ready when fall semester classes begin Aug. 19. Many of the courses to be offered at the center, they said - including those in mechatronics, welding and diesel technology - are designed to help support the growing oil and gas industry and position students for success in that field and others.
"What people are going to learn here is going to be applicable to the jobs that are here and the jobs that are coming," said college President Martin Olshinsky prior to a ceremonial ribbon cutting.
GROWTH — West Virginia Northern Community College President Martin Olshinsky speaks as college leaders and local officials prepare to cut the ribbon and mark the official opening of the college’s applied technology center in downtown Wheeling. - Ian Hicks
The building is painted in bright colors and has large windows that allow plenty of natural light inside, while several strategically placed cameras keep watch over the exterior. The first floor features a large reception area, office space and a refrigeration, heating and air conditioning lab decked out with all-new equipment, and two additional labs on the ground floor will house courses in welding and diesel technology.
The upstairs features additional classroom space as well as a large room that - despite the dizzying array of dials, buttons, switches and colored wires at its various work stations - is not the set of a science fiction film but WVNCC's new mechatronics lab. There, students will learn a blend of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering that will help them deal with the sophisticated equipment of today's manufacturing facilities.
"It's industrial maintenance on steroids, if you will," said Michael Koon, WVNCC's vice president of work force development.
While occupations typically are classified as "blue collar" or "white collar" depending on the nature of their demands, Koon said those who study mechatronics are forging their own identity in the work force.
"They're calling them gold-collar workers because they mean that much to employers," Koon said.
One of those employers is steelmaker ArcelorMittal, whose "Steelworker of the Future" concept was, in part, the genesis of WVNCC's mechatronics program. It envisions a more tech-savvy, highly educated labor force to replace the current generation that is rapidly approaching retirement age.
James Skidmore, chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, praised state legislators representing the Northern Panhandle for their support of the project, noting the $6 million capital projects bond issued in 2008 to fund this and other improvements for WVNCC was the first of its kind devoted exclusively to community colleges. He believes that step ultimately will open the door for more West Virginians to gain higher skills and higher wages.
"We did not always have the facilities to do that, and now we do," Skidmore said.
With all but a few finishing touches at the center complete, the focus now shifts to completing work on the opposite side of the corner on the former Straub Hyundai property, where a new Barnes & Noble store should provide a much-needed boost to the downtown Wheeling retail scene. That building, expected to be finished sometime in July, also will serve as a student activities center, though the bookstore will be open to the public.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said empty buildings in Wheeling all too often decay and end up being demolished, and he commended WVNCC for keeping that from happening to the Straub buildings, noting the technology center was once a theater before it was a car dealership.
"Now, we're seeing a great reuse of these structures in the downtown," McKenzie said.
The project was designed by Victor Greco and his firm SMG Architects of Wheeling. DeSalvo Construction of Hubbard, Ohio, is the general contractor, which was the low bidder among eight competing firms.
The 2008 bond issue also funded the construction of 9,590 square feet of additional classroom space at the college's Weirton campus, completed in May 2011.
In August of that year, WVNCC officials inked a $1.05 million deal with the Ohio County Development Authority to purchase the Straub properties in Wheeling, acquired by the county in an earlier land swap with the car dealership for property at the Highlands retail development.
The college broke ground on the technology center last May, with work getting under way for the future Barnes & Noble in September.