Building support to win a bond referendum

Part of Alamance Community College's strategy to encourage local residents to support its $39.6 million bond package was to stay on message: A vote for education is a vote for workforce development, bridging the skills gap, countywide economic development, and recruiting and retaining business and industry. (Photo: ACC)

In a conservative North Carolina county where most residents take a dim view of raising taxes to fund public projects, Alamance Community College (ACC) in November secured approval for a $39.6 million bond package.

The victory was historic and unprecedented for the college. It garnered two-to-one voter support, winning every county precinct, including in rural areas that begrudged the college in earlier bond votes.

How ACC won – and did so in conjunction with a second $150 million bond referendum to support public schools – highlights the value of laying a solid foundation through community connections, relationship building, and strategic partnerships five years in the making.

Conventional wisdom holds that bond campaigns begin about 18 months ahead of early voting. In the case of Alamance Community College, that work began in late 2013 when Algie Gatewood arrived from Portland, Oregon, and it continued over the next five years. As president, Gatewood was immediately tasked to address what trustees saw as a fundamental weakness: A lack of connection to the larger community and a paucity of partnerships with key community stakeholders.

As its new president, he took more than 1,000 meetings in his first 12 months, forging alliances with the public school system, state legislative leaders, elected municipal officials, grant-making foundations, non-profits, hospitals, industries, the faith community and such entities as Goodwill Industries, the Burlington Housing Authority and the local library system.

That work from 2014 through 2018 paid off at the ballot box. Consultants predicted that ACC would need 22,000-plus votes to secure passage. On Nov. 6, the college received 35,236 votes.

A cohesive message

The college’s consultants recommended at a March 2017 board retreat that trustees carefully review the pros and cons of linking its fate to a much larger $150 million bond referendum that the Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS) would request on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The critical question: Would voters have an appetite for nearly $200 million in bond projects?

Ongoing discussions between the college and ABSS ultimately argued for two separate bond requests on the Nov. 6 ballot. The advantage? The two requests could be branded and positioned as a referendum on education, not on individual entities or agendas.

The key for ACC and ABSS was to stay on message: A vote for education is a vote for workforce development, bridging the skills gap, countywide economic development, and recruiting and retaining business and industry.

Through a steering committee that included representatives from the college and the public school system, a communication plan emphasized not only what and why — but more strategically — the what’s-in-it-for-me?

Alamance Community College was fresh off developing a three-year strategic plan, crafting a 10-year $58.3 million master facilities plan, introducing a college economic impact report ($200 million impact per year), opening a $16 million Advanced Applied Technology Center, and launching a Biotechnology Center of Excellence to better serve a sector projected to have a $100 billion annual statewide impact by 2025.

That documentation was tangible voter evidence that the college was operating from a needs-based strategy to better serve the county.

Connecting with the community

More importantly, a cross-section of the community was invited to provide guidance in crafting each strategic initiative. Leaders in government, education, health care, non-profits, industry and the faith communities shaped the plans that would undergird future funding requests.

Gatewood augmented those formalized planning sessions with a “listening tour” of two dozen middle school and high school principals and counselors across Alamance County. The tour also included private, charter and homeschool administrators.

The college’s administration held ongoing president’s roundtable meetings with mid-tier community leaders, founding an alumni council to deepen graduate engagement and scheduling annual breakfasts with local legislative leaders. Gatewood visited chancellors and top leaders at neighboring universities and he facilitated summer enrichment programs aimed at fostering college-going aspirations among middle school and high school students — many prospective first-generation students — in the STEM fields.

Yielding results

The impact of 2014-2018 efforts? An early college, in partnership with ABSS, was established. A series of transfer and dual-enrollment agreements were reached with six local colleges and universities. Nearly two dozen new degree and certificate programs were added, including mechatronics, histotechnology and engineering. An advanced manufacturing apprenticeship program to bridge the skills gap was developed in collaboration with the public schools, the chamber of commerce and local businesses.

Grants, donations and in-kind contributions to support new initiatives poured in from IBM, Siemens, Lab Corp, Honda Aero, Ashley Furniture, Wells Fargo, Impact Alamance, Golden Leaf Foundation and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. One anonymous donor deeded 47 acres of land to the college. The United Way assisted in funding public transit to ACC’s two campuses.

Each development garnered positive media attention and helped spread word-of-mouth.

Final push

In addition to enhanced student support services and a regional public safety training center, the lynch-pin of the college’s bond request was $9 million toward a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, which also would expand the college’s nursing program.

That health care/life sciences focus captured the public’s imagination, so much so that an Elon University poll on behalf of ACC showed that that emphasis was driving prospective voter support for the college. Elon University examined voter behavior across income, education, gender, age and party affiliation and found that most voters were “extremely likely” or “somewhat likely” to support ACC.

Taking nothing for granted, college leadership and students worked the polls from early voting to Nov. 6.

The steering committee launched its full campaign in August 2018 – well ahead of early voting but late enough to limit oppositional push-back. ACC and public school bonds passed overwhelmingly.

“Thanks to a renewed dedication to community outreach, ACC is poised to move forward in a 21st century economy at an accelerated pace,” Gatewood said.

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