Support Wavering Among Some Wheeling City Council Members for Bluefield State Project After Local Colleges Express Opposition
WHEELING — Wheeling City Council members had mixed reactions to backlash from three local institutions of higher learning, which this week jointly and publicly opposed the city’s efforts to bring Bluefield State College to Wheeling.
Some council members on Thursday indicated that, moving forward, they would reconsider their support of the effort to bring the southern West Virginia college to Wheeling, a project initiated earlier this year through a memorandum of understanding between the city and Bluefield State. Other council members and city leaders indicated they will continue supporting the move, another part of the ongoing effort to fill vacant space at the city-owned former Ohio Valley Medical Center.
As part of the memorandum, the city and Bluefield State are collaborating to establish a new Engineering and Manufacturing Center in one of the OVMC buildings. Council support was unanimous when the announcement was made earlier this year. City leaders expressed excitement about possibly bringing a reputable tenant to the former hospital campus and the city.
City officials at the time said Bluefield’s proposal brings engineering programs that are not offered locally, but are in demand. Yet, after that announcement, officials at West Virginia Northern Community College, West Liberty University and Wheeling University sent a letter to council members and Mayor Glenn Elliott expressing their “strong disappointment” in the move.
In a joint letter dated Feb. 19, presidents of the three local colleges noted that “together, we offer more than 200 degree programs that lead directly to local jobs — including both engineering and manufacturing that are specifically mentioned in this MOU.” The letter contended that if the city moved forward with the collaboration, it would cause “negative consequences” for one or all of the local institutions, all of which disputed the assertion there was a local void in engineering degree programs.
Representatives of the colleges and city officials reportedly had been in discussions since then. But this week, Dr. Daniel Mosser, president of WVNCC; David Artman, chairman of the WVNCC board of governors; Ginny Favede, president of Wheeling University; and Dr. W. Franklin Evans, president of West Liberty University, all released statements protesting the city’s support of the Bluefield proposal.
Favede said the proposal was “disappointing” in allowing Bluefield State to offer what she said were “duplicate academic majors,” and that it “diminishes the quality, rigorous educational opportunities our institutions provide to the men and women of this region.”
Wheeling University offers an engineering science major and minor, Favede said, a program that provides students “expert instruction from professor Robert Yahn, a native of the Friendly City.” The university’s engineering program expands on the needs of skilled professionals offering a minor and a professional certificate in construction management and will soon offer a bachelor of science degree, Favede said.
“Since Wheeling is already well served by three exceptional colleges and universities, not to mention those in surrounding counties, there is no need for Wheeling elected leaders to enter into an MOU/feasibility study with Bluefield State College,” Artman said.
Evans said he stands in solidarity with the other local college leaders on this matter.
“We are confident that our three institutions are equipped to provide the educational needs of this region with quality programs that meet the demands of our regional employers,” Evans said. “There is a process that must be followed to ensure that the expansion of programs by public institutions of higher learning in the state of West Virginia are needed and successful. This process is proper and is the only way to achieve approval of such expansion.”
Following the public backlash, some city council members indicated they were not presented with a full picture of the situation earlier this year when a vote on the memorandum was taken.
“I was disappointed to learn that the information provided to council immediately ahead of the vote on this MOU did not clearly align with the information provided in the response by the other local higher education institutions in their joint letter to council,” Councilman Ben Seidler said on Thursday. “My interpretation of the presentation by Bluefield State College was that they had already reached out to the other local institutions — mentioned by name — and those institutions were not interested in pursuing such a program as presented by Bluefield, and as such, would not be in direct competition.”
Seidler noted that while competition is not always a bad thing, he prefers to make decisions “based on solid facts, as well as other relevant economic variables having the potential to upset the balance of other local institutions who are navigating their way through their own hurdles over the last turbulent year or so.”
Council members also have a responsibility to Wheeling citizens to be good financial stewards of city coffers, Seidler added.
“Part of that is accepting for consideration entities that come before the city with reasonable proposals to put these buildings to good use,” Seidler said. “Based on the recent information that has come to light, I am seriously reconsidering my support of this memorandum of understanding.”
Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum on Thursday agreed that the Bluefield State project may not be the best thing for the city in the long run.
“After serious and thoughtful consideration, taking into account a critical need for viable economic development, the current landscape of educational institutions, and our inherent and ultimate accountability to the taxpayers of the city of Wheeling, if a vote is brought before the full council to further explore a long-term and legally binding tenant relationship with Bluefield State College at the former campus of OVMC, I would not vote in the affirmative,” Ketchum said.
Not all council members have expressed interest in backing away from the Bluefield proposal. Some remain firmly behind the collaboration and were disappointed in the local college leaders’ stance.
“One of the things city council is tasked with is bringing more jobs, opportunities, services and investment to the city of Wheeling,” Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said. “Nowhere in the city charter does it say we should refuse to allow new colleges or businesses to open in Wheeling as a way to protect existing Wheeling colleges or businesses from competition.”
Thalman said he was confident that Bluefield State will bring more jobs, students and investment into Wheeling that otherwise the city would not see.
“The reality is that anybody who rents space in the former OVMC building could potentially be competing with an existing Wheeling business,” Thalman said. “If we refuse to rent space to Bluefield because they could be seen as competing with local colleges, where does this end?
“Should we refuse to allow anybody to provide medical services in the former OVMC campus because they could be seen as competing with Wheeling Hospital?” he continued. “Should the city not have turned over a building downtown to a local developer who recently remodeled the building for a new coffee shop — Mugshots — to open because a new coffee shop could be seen as competing with existing coffee shops? Should the city under former Mayor Nick Sparchane not have recruited Orrick to the city because Orrick could be seen as competing with local attorneys? Those aren’t exactly apples-to-apples comparisons, but where does this end if we go down this path?”
Thalman added that the three existing local colleges already compete with numerous institutions currently offering engineering programs online.
“I’m confident our local colleges are of a high quality and will continue to be able to compete if and when Bluefield offers these engineering programs in person within the city,” Thalman said.
Even if a majority of city council members continue to support the Bluefield proposal, the ultimate factor will be support of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which officials said must approve Bluefield’s bid to enter the Wheeling market
“There are a few ‘ifs’ that still to be answered going forward in this process,” Councilman Dave Palmer said. “If the local college and universities do not offer the same accredited program that Bluefield State is proposing and if it is approved by the HEPC, then I think it makes economic sense to provide educational and job progress to the Ohio Valley.”