WATSONTOWN — The former Watsontown Elementary School building has been identified by a committee seeking to bring a community college to the Central Susquehanna Valley as the top choice to potentially house the school.
Bob Garrett, president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Susquehanna Community Education Project board, said the project has been working for nearly a decade to bring a community college to the valley.
He noted that the region has top-notch liberal arts colleges and nationally ranked universities, along with quality technical schools.
“The one thing we don’t have in our valley is a community college, which operates basically as grades 13 and 14,” Garrett said. “The other issue we have is… we are in a severe worker shortage with companies having to scale back production.”
If the workforce was properly trained, Garrett said local companies would be able to expand operations.
Unlike a liberal arts colleges and universities, where curriculum changes could take a long period of time, Garrett said a community college can change its curriculum on a semester basis to best match the current needs of the potential workforce.
In Pennsylvania, Garrett said community colleges are regulated by the Department of Education. Because of this, the education project turned to the department for advice on how to proceed with bringing a community college to the area.
“The Department of Education said ‘we want you to incubate an existing community college,’” Garrett said. “We went around with our concept and knocked on a bunch of doors. The community college that showed an interest in our program was Luzerne County Community College (LCCC).”
The Susquehanna Community Education Project board presented LCCC with a list of 20 potential sites which could house a community college.
Garrett noted that LCCC already offers classes in Shamokin and has a small medical program in Kulpmont.
Out of the list of 20, he said LCCC came up with three sites they were most interested in establishing a college. The former Watsontown Elementary School building was selected as the top pick. The other two choices were a vacant department store in the Susquehanna Valley Mall and a former middle school building in the Sunbury area.
The Watsontown building was vacated at the end of the 2015-16 school year when the Warrior Run School District consolidated its elementary program.
In April, the district approved leasing 8.5 classrooms in the former elementary school to the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU) to host various programs during the 2018-19 school year. CSIU will pay the district $53,046 to use the space.
Garrett said the LCCC is going through a “due diligence process” with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to help make a final determination if the Watsontown location is the appropriate site to host a community college.
“It was a very scientific process they went through, and not a political process,” Garrett said, while explaining how Watsontown became the top choice.
“What they looked at, they drew circles around the (three) sites,” he said. “When they’re in Watsontown, they don’t overlap with the Harrisburg Area Community College or (the LCCC) campus in Shamokin. (Watsontown) gives them a nice service area.”
Garrett noted that Watsontown is also a convenient location for potential commuters, as it is close to Interstates 80 and 180, and Route 15.
Warrior Run Superintendent Dr. Alan Hack expressed excitement with the Watsontown building being selected as the top choice to potentially host a community college.
“If we’re ultimately chosen, we’re excited about the opportunity to potentially provide space to the community college and provide access to higher education opportunities in our region,” Hack said.
He said the district has not sought out any tenants for the former elementary building, but instead has been approached by entities potentially interested in occupying the space.
“We are open to opportunities to give back to our local and surrounding communities,” Hack said. “The impact of having a community college in our region will only benefit residents in our district and potentially the entire county, surrounding counties.”
Garrett said his committee would like to announce the site chosen to host the community college this fall, with classes to start in fall 2019.
“The fact that we may get a facility in Watsontown does not mean that forever and forever and ever there will be a community college in Watsontown,” Garrett said. “At some point, it might make sense to move it to another location. This gives us a very easy startup (location).”