York Tech seeks to transform campus with 20-year development plan

The first projects of a major facelift are underway at York Technical College.

After studying the school’s needs for a few years, President Greg Rutherford is overseeing the gradual implementation of a 20-year master plan that could call for up to a $100 million investment in infrastructure upgrades and new facilities.

The campus improvements range from the new perimeter road that’s under construction to a new “learning commons” that will expand the current library to include dining options, retail space and academic support resources.

The library expansion and its added services would nearly double the building’s square footage and could cost up to $10 million. College officials expect that construction would start by the summer of 2015.

Next year, the college plans to expand its C-Building to make some classrooms larger and better equipped with up-to-date technology.

So far, York Tech has not borrowed any money to pay for the upgrades. Being “frugal and judicious” with the school’s money, Rutherford said, is a top priority.

York Tech is reaping the benefits of enrollment growth during the years of the recession, when the economy took a severe dip and many workers chose to re-tool at community colleges and technical schools.

The college’s student population was 4,731 in 2007. This year, the college enrolled close to 7,000 students – many of them part-time, according to York Tech’s website.

Rutherford expects that additions to campus under the master plan will more than accommodate an expected 30 percent enrollment growth in the future.

With more students paying tuition, the college has been able to save for its “facelift,” he said.

With about 15 percent of the college’s spending budget from state tax dollars and some from York County taxpayers, Rutherford says it’s a balancing act to embark on new campus projects without increasing tuition drastically.

He points to the school’s relatively low spending on administrative functions as a way York Tech has been able to save for upcoming growth.

Of South Carolina’s 16 two-year technical colleges, York Tech has the fourth-lowest rate of administrative spending when compared to spending on academic services. The college estimates it spent 19 cents of every dollar last year on administrative costs such as salaries for top leadership.

Keeping those costs low, Rutherford said, often requires York Tech employees to do more with less and to take on many responsibilities.

The college also often hires adjunct professors instead of full-time faculty members to save money. While he’d like the college to employ more full-time professors, Rutherford said, he doesn’t want to greatly increase student tuition and fees to do so.

Investing York Tech’s tuition dollars into the campus by way of the master plan projects, he said, will be a sustainable way to meet current demands and attract more students and visitors.

Making campus ‘intuitive’

A major part of the changes is a reconfiguration of traffic patterns on campus to make the college’s central area more pedestrian-friendly. Planners also want to make navigation on campus easier for first-time visitors and prospective students.

New directional signs and a what Rutherford calls a more “intuitive” campus layout should help those unfamiliar with York Tech find their way around, he said.

“Students already come to us with some level of apprehension” about starting college or being in a new place, he said. “We want to help lessen that anxiety by the way you access our campus.”

Eventually, the existing road at the front of campus – connecting to Anderson Road – will be widened to a two-way street.

That new two-way perimeter road will help limit vehicular traffic to entrances, exits and parking lots and create a safer environment for pedestrians. The school has also added more parking spaces in anticipation of student enrollment growth.

York Tech will also soon revamp its main entrance and make the Baxter Hood Center entrance – near Dave Lyle Boulevard – the main gateway to campus. Rutherford hopes the improvement will give first-time visitors the “I’ve arrived” feeling, he said.

Many of the master plan projects also seek to help those already on campus feel more comfortable, he said. After soliciting opinions from more than 400 people in 2008 during master plan discussions, Rutherford heard from students and others that York Tech could use more campus space for socializing and studying.

Although the college is not a residential school, many York Tech students want places they can “live” and hang out in on campus, he said. One goal of the master plan projects is to foster more “campus life” without becoming completely “university-esque” like a residential school, he said.

Injecting more social life into campus can be as simple as improving areas where people already congregate, Rutherford and his staff learned recently. On a walk around campus, he noticed students spending a lot of time outside one building. There was only one small bench where people could sit and others would sit on the concrete with their laptops and books.

Rutherford decided to put some umbrella-covered tables and chairs there to create a more inviting space. Now, it’s a popular spot on campus for students to take a break, study or meet with professors and classmates, he said.

At a relatively low cost, he said, the area was transformed into a place where he hopes students are making connections with other people. Fostering a campus environment where students have more opportunities to build relationships, Rutherford said, is a major aspect of the upcoming additions at York Tech.

The idea, he said, is to ask, “How can we leverage every blade of grass, every inch of asphalt to support, in some way, student success.”

Advancing Knowledge Park

How well York Tech’s students perform, Rutherford said, has a direct impact on the local economy.

Rutherford – who is also president of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation – sees a direct correlation between the college’s academic offerings and what employers are looking for before deciding to locate in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. York Tech’s contribution to luring companies to the area, he said, is largely the guarantee of a talented, educated workforce.

“We don’t exist because we think it’s a good idea to exist,” he said. “We exist because we add net value.”

Rock Hill business leaders involved in the economic development organization expect York Tech will play a key role, along with Winthrop University, in the success of Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park. The park, which is the city’s plan to redevelop the textile corridor, looks to bring high-tech companies and supporting retail and restaurant businesses to several properties between downtown and Winthrop.

Rebuilding on the old Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co., commonly called the Bleachery, is a major component of the plan.

One example of York Tech’s partnership with the ecomonic development group could be creating a “talent management” program, which is currently being discussed, Rutherford said. The source of skilled college graduates could help bolster Rock Hill’s position when vying for companies to locate in Knowledge Park, he said.

York Tech and Winthrop have already had some success in integrating students with new technology companies in Rock Hill by working with The Hive in downtown. There, students work on online marketing campaigns and build websites for nonprofit clients.

Because nearly 95 percent of York Tech students stay in York County or neighboring Chester and Lancaster counties, investments on campus are also investments in the local economy, Rutherford said.

The first phase of the master plan projects is nearing completion and Rutherford expects campus visitors will soon see major differences at York Tech.

“This next year,” he said, “is going to be a huge year of change.”

By Anna Douglas, Staff Reporter with The Herald