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Quinsigamond finalizes AO lease

Community college to hold classes in Southbridge this fall

July 08, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — The coming of Quinsigamond Community College has been common knowledge for weeks, but the college finalized its lease arrangements Wednesday. Starting this fall, it will hold classes in Building No. 5 of the American Optical complex.

"I think we have a lot of people [in town] who want to improve themselves," said Jacob Edwards Library Director Margaret Morrissey. "In this economy, there's no real [job] opportunity at the moment, but if you're going to school at this time, it's perfect. You'll have the opportunity to position yourself for when the economy turns around in a couple years."

In reality, the new campus is an expansion of a long relationship QCC has had with Southbridge. For nearly 30 years, the college has offered non-credit night classes at the high school, but it will now go beyond that to offer real credit courses.

According to Vice President of Community Engagement Dale Allen, it will kick things off in September with "the most demanded courses in terms of enrollment" — 61 credit classes plus "an array of non-credit offerings." Among them will be several basic requirements, such as English and math, in the school's general studies, business and criminal justice majors.

Allen said the college plans to roll out "three, four or five distinctly different academic programs" in their entirety starting in Sept. 2010, plus specialty training in areas such as green technology. Additionally, the college will hire staff for this campus over time, but will start by shuttling staff from Worcester, he said.

"This location creates a true campus environment," Allen said, noting the lease gives students the right to use some facilities of the hotel, conference center and fitness center. " We wanted to be in a community where higher education access was limited."

QCC chose Southbridge after a lengthy process of looking in the South County, Blackstone Valley and Marlborough areas. This region has just one college — Nichols in Dudley — and around 1,100 students make the drive to Worcester to attend QCC, in addition to those enrolled at that city's other colleges.

Allen said QCC received only one bid when it advertised its requirements a few months ago. He had expected a second, but that never came in, he added. After working out some details, the college signed a five-year lease with AO owner Franklin Realty for a gradually increasing rate of $48,500 to $115,000 per year. It will be using the first and third floors, while cooperating with Workforce Central, which already rents the second floor, he added.

"Hopefully, it's a first step in getting other schools to come to the area," School Committee Chairman Jack Jovan said. "The mills aren't coming back, so this is an opportunity to reinvent ourselves as an education-type community."

Morrissey would love to see that, too, but noted Southbridge "has to walk before it can run." To start things off, she's planning to meet with her equal at the college next week to see how the two libraries can cooperate.

"This is the very start of an ongoing relationship that can only get better," she said, noting QCC's presence will give students and the community overall access to graduate-level faculty without the distance that can happen at bigger universities.

Allen noted the school is already working with local high schools to mesh its programs with theirs. As an example, he noted Bay Path Tech has an LPN program, so Quinsig won't offer that here. Instead, it will work with Bay Path to enable its students to transfer to QCC's RN program if they wish, he said.

To Morrissey, having Quinsigamond here will help break down barriers and increase the "very low percentage" of town residents that now have college degrees. (CityData.com noted that just 10.6 percent of residents had a bachelor's degree or higher in 2007.) She noted many people coming to the library have expressed interest, but indicated they could not travel to Worcester.

"I think some people are fearful of third-level [education]," she said, referring to the Irish term for college. "It's about exploring the unknown, and they might not want to travel outside the community. Having the college here wouldn't be too much of a jump for them, so [the prospect] is not as menacing."

In the long run, Morrissey added, having a college will help people "raise their expectations" and probably gradually instill an interest in "a wider genre" of concepts and issues. Beyond that, she predicted it would have a positive impact on the town's business climate, attracting companies who need educated workers and breathing some life into local firms.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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