Two local colleges had the same idea when the Beaufort County School District offered to share millions of dollars in potential sales-tax revenue.
They would build new learning centers — one academic and one vocational — on their greater Bluffton campuses, said leaders of the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Technical College of the Lowcountry.
Each stands to receive up to $14.1 million for those projects if voters approve the school district’s 1 percent educational sales tax referendum in November.
The proposed tax is expected to generate about $282 million over 10 years, about 10 percent of which school board members pledged in April to share with USCB and TCL. Another $217 million would pay for new district schools, school expansions and HVAC and roof replacements.
Though only TCL had announced what it would do with its share of the money in April, the board and district superintendent Jeff Moss said they were confident the $28.2 million would benefit local students and the local workforce for years to come.
This week, USCB leaders said it will build a $15 million academic building at its Hilton Head Gateway campus in Bluffton to ease its shortage of classroom and faculty office space. Last year, the college sought $7.5 million for such a building through a failed state capital improvement bond. USCB spokesperson Kerry Jarvis would not say Tuesday whether the cost had changed or whether the college had requested only half the funds last year.
Jarvis stressed, however, that enrollment at the Bluffton campus is growing quickly and professors are sometimes forced to use conference rooms and other non-classroom spaces for lessons.
“A vital concern is enhancing and expanding laboratory space to meet the needs of our students,” Jarvis said. “This is crucial to providing our students with the resources they need to succeed.”
The college is also included in a separate 1 percent sales tax referendum, still under consideration by Beaufort County Council. It hopes to receive $3.15 million to build a new Osher Lifelong Learning Center location in Bluffton.
And the university is getting a new $24.5 million campus on Hilton Head, funded entirely by town property taxes that would otherwise go to the county, school district, town, university and Hilton Head Island Public Service District.
TCL is also included in both referendums. With the district’s revenue, it would build a $12.5 million Regional Workforce Training Center at its New River campus in Bluffton, envisioning a hub of industrial education with state-of-the-art training facilities for 16 fields.
Some of the disciplines, such as welding, aviation and automotive technology, are already offered by TCL, but in rapidly aging and outdated spaces, president Richard Gough said.
The new 50,000-square-foot center would expand those programs and include new ones that should see increased demand with the development of the Jasper Ocean Terminal and RiverPort Business Park in Hardeeville, such as truck driving and supply chain management — essentially, getting products from one place to another.
“This badly needed capital project has been a part of TCL’s Facilities Master Plan for several years,” Gough said, adding that it has been vetted and approved by the Lowcountry Area Commission and by the State Technical College System.
From the county’s sales tax revenue, TCL would receive $11.6 million to build a 25,000-square-foot Culinary Arts Teaching Institute and $2.5 million to renovate an empty administrative building on its Beaufort campus to add training for health sciences jobs such as respiratory therapists and dental hygiene technicians.
Some local leaders have questioned the use of the funds, especially considering USCB had not announced its plans when the district made its offer.
“It’s pretty irresponsible to fund things that are really incomplete when proper plans aren’t even in place,” said Joe Iaco, spokesman for the Beaufort County Republican Club.
He added that by giving money to the colleges, the school district seemed to be trading funds for votes.
“Unfortunately, that may backfire for them because there’s plenty of taxpayers who now see it as an unnecessary boondoggle,” Iaco said.
Gough, however, said he does not have another way to build the new center, especially since South Carolina has not issued a capital bond bill since 2001.
“These are programs we know are needed but can’t start,” he said, “because we don’t have facilities.”