HAMILTON – The potential relocation of the Bitterroot College to the old Westview school building just west of downtown Hamilton has taken a major step forward.
The state Board of Regents approved the University of Montana’s request to sign a five-year lease on the building earlier this month. The Hamilton High School District board followed suit with its own approval of the lease.
Under terms of the lease, the University of Montana agrees to spend about $500,000 upgrading the building’s infrastructure, as well as making other improvements.
Bitterroot College will also pick up utility and custodial costs for the building over the five-year term.
In exchange, Hamilton High School will provide the building rent-free. The school district also agreed to budget $50,000 for asbestos abatement and perform other projects in the building.
Hamilton School Superintendent Tom Korst said the business decision for the school district was a “no-brainer.”
The district spends somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 annually to pay utility and custodial costs for the 1960s-era building that once housed the district’s seventh and eighth grades. The aging structure requires electrical, plumbing and access upgrades to make it usable.
Those are upgrades the school district can’t afford and had no need to make, Korst said.
“That’s why this is such a win/win deal in the end,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t work out for the college, we’ll get a better building at the end of five years. That’s the worst thing that could come out of this for the school district.
“Of course, our hopes are the college will be very successful,” he said. “You don’t get many opportunities like this. You have to jump on them when they come along.”
The new building offers the Bitterroot College room to expand at a time when demands for its class offerings are growing.
Bitterroot College director Victoria Clark said the $500,000 price tag for the lease is very close to the amount that the college would pay for rent at its current location over a five-year period.
“It’s really a nice package for everyone involved,” Clark said.
The 209 students enrolled at the college in Hamilton this spring are taking more classes than ever, she said. The college’s full time equivalent (FTE) number is up 10 percent from the same time last year.
“While most other units in the university system are seeing some declines, we are seeing an increase,” Clark said. “We are offering more variety and that has its appeal to students looking to upgrade their skills … and we have more younger students than ever. The median age has dropped from 31 to 28.”
The Bitterroot College continues to add both traditional class offerings and a variety of certification programs that allow students to obtain the skills they need to quickly find employment.
The college’s popular certified nursing assistant program has graduated nearly 40 students and about 80 percent of those have found work in that field.
The school has graduated about 30 from its commercial driver’s license program.
“Every single one of them found a job,” Clark said. “We not only offer students a variety of college options, but these certification course options are becoming our bread and butter. People want to be able to get the skills they need to get a job.”
The college hopes to get the infrastructure improvements on the Westview building completed this spring and summer and be ready to open its doors at the new location in August.
Before those can begin, the proposal has to jump through some hoops at the city level.
The city of Hamilton’s Zoning Board of Adjustment will meet Monday, March 23 at 5:30 p.m. to consider a permit allowing the building’s use to change from elementary/high school to college/vocational school.
On the following night, the Hamilton City Council’s Committee of the Whole will consider the potential traffic and parking impacts of moving the college on surrounding neighborhoods at a meeting that begins at 7 p.m. in City Hall.
Zoning administrator Land Hanson said the two meetings will offer local residents an opportunity to learn more about the proposal and offer their input.
“These meetings allow folks to come and voice their opinions,” Hanson said. “If there are concerns, hopefully we hear from people about those.”
If the location is approved, Clark said the Bitterroot College will be the only two-year higher-education school in the state located adjacent to a community’s downtown.
“It will give our community a nexus,” she said. “The fact that the location is right next to the river is exciting. The river is such a part of the psyche of living in the Bitterroot Valley.”
University of Montana Provost Perry Brown said the additional space the new site offers potentially opens up possibilities that no one has even considered.
“We knew we needed to expand the facility to be able to support more students in our programs,” Brown said. “Our current facility is sufficient for what we are doing at this moment, but there was no opportunity for expansion. With this additional space, there will be opportunities for expansion that we haven’t even anticipated yet. It will certainly provide us with a way to resolve the issues that we have right now, while really being able to look forward to what it can become.”