New community college takes shape in Gonzales

On a recent weekday, construction workers were on the job, working to finish up the new home for River Parishes Community College in the Edenborne Development, which is set to open for classes Aug. 18.

Walls were going up and workers were painting, covering much of the 81,000-square-foot, prefabricated steel frame structure. Huge loops of electrical and computer wiring could be seen before the ceilings were installed.

Chancellor Dale Doty, who joined the college staff in November, walked through the building and noted that a heavy, concrete-type sink would be going into a janitors’ room.

“I spent a number of years in industry,” said Doty, who worked with the Southern Tool Company in Colorado and Louisiana from 1984 to 2000.

After that, he returned to an earlier career in education and, before coming to RPCC, was vice president for academic affairs with Florence Darlington Technical College in Florence, South Carolina.

In Louisiana, Doty came on board in time to see the new home for River Parishes Community College take shape. The project was overseen from its beginning by the previous and original chancellor, Joe Ben Welch, who retired in the fall.

Sitting on 43 acres in the Edenborne Development off La. 44, near Interstate 10, RPCC has the capacity to triple enrollment in the coming years, Doty said.

During the fall semester, RPCC numbered about 1,600 full-time, community college students earning associate degrees or transferring to a four-year college and about 1,500 part-time high school students in dual enrollment classes with the community college, Doty said.

Ten years ago, RPCC had 200 full-time students.

When the economy dips, enrollment in community colleges tends to rise, Doty said.

“When the job market is tight, people want to improve” their career options, Doty said.

One advantage the new campus will have over its former charming campus in Sorrento is convenience.

“Instead of being scattered over 15 acres, with a bayou in the middle and temporary buildings, everything is in one place, all in one building,” Doty said.

That is, until the next phase of construction for RPCC, he said.

The community college’s foundation has launched a capital campaign to raise some $900,000 in private funds in order to qualify for $8.1 million in state funds to build a planned $9 million Advanced Technology Center.

The center will be built across from a campus square, behind the main building, and will house technical programs now housed on Airline Highway in Sorrento.

“The opening of the River Parishes Community College new, state-of-the-art campus is one of the most exciting things to happen in this region for many years,” said Ryland Percy, president of the RPCC Foundation.

“The economic impact on our community will be tremendous,” he said.

The college will begin moving in new furniture in July, and the faculty and staff will begin moving from their leased home on La. 22 in Sorrento in August and in time for the start of the fall semester.

The roof of the new building rises more than five stories in an atrium over a handsomely proportioned stairway in the center of the lobby with halls for 19 classrooms and a large student lounge branching off from the central corridor.

Across the back of the first floor is a large library. Administrative offices will be on the second floor.

The funds for the new construction for the community college and others in Louisiana came through legislation passed in 2007 to update, improve and modernize community colleges around the state, said Quentin Taylor, executive director of media relations for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, which was formed 1999.

The new RPCC campus was one of 26 projects in the state for 13 community and technical colleges statewide.

Locally, RPCC merged with the Louisiana Technical College-Ascension Campus in 2010.

Welch, RPCC’s original chancellor, remembers when the college began offering classes in 1999 to a little more than 100 students in the Sorrento Fire Station and a Sorrento church, before it settled into the Sorrento site that it will be leaving this summer.

He said one of the concerns he heard when RPCC was founded in Sorrento, halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, was that it would be hard for it to attract people to go to work there.

“I’ve been in the community college field for about 45 years, in three different states,” Welch said. “That’s the best faculty and staff I had in 45 years.”