BridgeValley Community and Technical College’s recently reconstituted Board of Governors on Friday officially withdrew the school’s proposed master plan, which included leaving its main South Charleston campus building for the vacant Stone & Thomas building in Charleston.
The 11-member board, which had five new members confirmed by the West Virginia Senate last month, didn’t say whether any newly proposed master plan would include a move to Charleston.
New board Chairwoman Ashley Deem said the master plan needs to be reassessed.
The separate state-level board that oversees community colleges never voted on whether to approve BridgeValley’s now-rescinded master plan. Alongside some smaller projects, that plan included vacating Building 2000 in the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston and relocating to the former Stone & Thomas department store building in downtown Charleston.
Also Friday, college President Eunice Bellinger, who was hired years before the new board took power, said the following at the end of her regular president’s report to the board.
“Per the board’s agenda for today’s meeting, it looks as like the board is going to be considering the purchase, sale or lease of property, among a few of the other things in executive session,” she said.
“If such discussions are in relation to Building 2000 within the West Virginia Tech Park,” she said, “I would like to ask the board to please consider my past comments and concerns that I’ve made over the years regarding the safety and health of students and staff in conjunction with the publicly published EPA [federal Environmental Protection Agency] and DEP [state Department of Environmental Protection] reports that they can certainly access.”
If Bellinger ever publicly shared any safety and health concerns about Building 2000 before Friday, she had never stressed them in her arguments for leaving that structure. It was Barry Crist, one of the longest-serving board members, who first asked for more information Friday, after Bellinger said this.
The rescinded master plan’s arguments for the move focused on other things, such as an alleged lack of space in Building 2000. One paragraph referenced what might have been environmental issues, but it was unclear.
“Building 2000 is located in the Technology Park close to a retaining pond thats [sic] spillway is directly adjacent to the college’s parking lot,” the paragraph stated. “For that reason, the parking lot is maintained by Dow. The building, itself, is maintained by the [Tech Park] as per our lease. We believe that the water system infrastructure is deteriorating in the Tech Park. The cost to replace that system will be significant.”
Deem told Bellinger, “I haven’t received anything from anyone saying that the building is unsafe. Perhaps, since you brought this up today, you can expound upon specifically what health and safety concerns that you have for the well-being of the students and faculty and staff.”
Bellinger replied, “This is something I’ve talked about over the years and I’ve talked about with various people in the community, in the college community, and this is things that have been brought to me, as well as me voicing it.
“I’m not in a position today to go into the nitty and gritty of it, nor is it the right time to go into the nitty and gritty of it.”
She said that time would be when the EPA or DEP also can talk about it.
“And I certainly agree with that,” Deem replied. “But if we’re going to make representations in a public board meeting that a building is unsafe for the students, staff and faculty, to protect ourself against a lawsuit from the Tech Park itself and other entities involved with that, I think we should probably be more cautious unless we have supporting statistics and data and facts.”
“I’m suggesting that you think about that,” Bellinger said. “I’m making no accusations.”
Deem said she’s seen environmental reports, but “they don’t state that we can’t have a college at the Tech Park in Building 2000.”
Mark Blankenship, whom the Senate confirmed as a board member April 10, said, “We are in receipt of those [reports] and have discussed those with some of the folks at [the] DEP. And we are trying to get them available to, once and for all, discuss those issues as it relates to those reports at our next board meeting, which I think we can probably do in a public forum.”
The Gazette-Mail has requested the documents from Bellinger. Shortly before press time, Deem forwarded some documents that she said she finally received from Bellinger, after requesting them on April 19.
A DEP spokesman referred the Gazette-Mail to EPA documents, and the newspaper also is awaiting information from the EPA, as well.
The latest EPA inspection document from the batch the DEP highlighted is from 2018. It notes that Dow Chemical Co. created the Tech Park, and still owned some of it as of 2018.
The document mentions that a chemical widely used for dry-cleaning “exceeded the EPA maximum contaminant level” in the groundwater in a 2017 sample, but “all parties at the Facility are connected to a public water supply and there were no observed uses of groundwater at the time of the visit.”
The state-level community college oversight board discussed the now-rescinded master plan in October, but several members expressed concern about the move to the former downtown Charleston department store building.
Deem said Friday she thinks the BridgeValley board needs to reach out to the state college oversight agencies “and figure out exactly what their issues are. I would like to invite them to the next board meeting to discuss it.”
The college has been seeking to leave Building 2000 for years. In May 2018, past members of the BridgeValley board technically voted to move the school into the former Staats Hospital building, on Charleston’s West Side. But that relocation was subject to further approval of costs by the BridgeValley board and “feasibility studies.” The move did not happen.
In November 2019, the board publicly said, for the first time, that it was considering moving into the Stone & Thomas building.
The school’s master plan mostly cited a lack of adequate space in Building 2000, and touched on some other reasons for wanting to move. However, the plan also directly tied the proposed move to the college’s dispute with the Tech Park over how much it has to pay to stay in Building 2000.
The Gazette-Mail revealed the dispute in 2017, when the Tech Park was threatening to evict the college over nonpayment.
“As a result of that action, the [BridgeValley Community and Technical College] Board of Governors directed that the college vacate the property and find a new location,” Bellinger wrote in the plan.