Fall of a mall, rise of an incubator

Through a partnership with two local counties, Northwest Mississippi Community College has transformed a local mall into The Concourse, a new campus that features cutting-edge facilities with a workforce training and career technical focus. (Photo: NWCC)

For Michael Heindl, president of Northwest Mississippi Community College (NWCC), opportunity knocked when a major new mall at the Mississippi-Tennessee border, the Tanger Outlets Southaven, opened in 2015 and began pulling shoppers and then retailers out of a smaller, local mall in Batesville, Mississippi. County and city officials then purchased the Batesville mall with the help of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, state funding and the Appalachian Regional Commission, and began looking for a new use for the space.

In 2018, Batesville and Panola County officials approached Heindl with an immediately attractive proposition: The county would spend $17 million to transform the 140,000-square-foot mall space, located 30 minutes south of the community college’s main location of Senatobia, from retail space to offices, labs and classrooms per the college’s specifications and eventually turn over ownership of the mall. In return, Heindl would move some NWCC classes and associated facilities there, equip it with facilities and technology, and pay for the costs of teaching faculty and utilities for the facilities, “which is not cheap,” Heindl notes.

The former mall’s small retail spaces are now being broken up into larger classrooms, labs and office spaces that were flexible and could be adjusted to adapt to changing needs. A new roof was added.

The mall location, NWCC’s new Batesville campus, called The Concourse, features cutting-edge facilities with a workforce training and career technical focus. In fall 2021, Heindl opened the first new community college facility in the former mall, one housing its diesel technology program. All the new facilities are scheduled to be in place in the Batesville campus by fall 2023.

The benefits are mutual. Students will get experience at applied courses that can lead to high-paying jobs, particularly in electric vehicle manufacturing, given many nearby car manufacturing plants. For the county, it hopes the education and skilled labor will attract employers and generate entrepreneurs and tax revenue.

The key takeaway for Heindl is that relationships between community colleges and government and private stakeholders are vital.

“Without these types of relationships, we might not have perceived the opportunity or have been able to have arranged these types of opportunities, and we wouldn’t have been able to have a new 140,000-square-foot campus,” Heindl says. “This happened because county, city, businesses and college leaders got together and began thinking outside the box.”

Leasing facilities

In Greenville, South Carolina, another beneficial college land collaboration with county officials involving a mall has emerged, but in this case, one in which the college is leasing space to the county.

In September, Greenville Technical College (GTC) leased its former 60,000-square-foot admissions space to Greenville County for the county’s emergency medical services (EMS) operations. The facility is located down the street from the college’s main campus in a former mall owned by the college and the Greenville Tech Foundation. Greenville County trucks, employees, supplies and emergency management services will be housed and staged from the location.

“This will alleviate space issues for the county while also providing them a central location for their EMS operations,” says Jacqueline DiMaggio, GTC vice president for finance, of the lease, in place for five years with two possible three-year extensions. “It also generates revenue from unused space at the college since we have moved our admissions to a renovated building at the entrance to our main campus. The leased space is part of a former mall, which is used by the Greenville Tech Foundation to generate income and includes the University Center of Greenville, where Greenville Technical College partners with nine colleges and universities to offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs. By leasing one portion of the space, the college was able to retain the remainder.”

The move should also benefit students by providing opportunities for observation and internships for GTC EMT/paramedic students, DiMaggio says.

Leasing arrangements should at least be consistent with the college mission and, ideally, further it, DiMaggio says.

Moving to active learning spaces

At Springfield, Illinois-based Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC), the college’s campus facilities have moved away from smaller, defined use of spaces to active learning spaces. That is embodied in the design of newer buildings being constructed and through retrofits of older buildings, says LLCC President Charlotte Warren.

Active classroom spaces feature much larger rooms than conventional classrooms, with furniture and equipment on wheels, so they can be easily reconfigured during and between classes depending upon the nature of the class or activity, and partitions that can rapidly make smaller workspaces. The rooms also boast many video screens and whiteboards to allow for different forms of group activities.

“The technology that we add to these rooms facilitates students working in small teams and being able to share their work,” Warren says. “And then they can come back together as an entire class.”

Lincoln Land Community College’s Nursing Education Center, which opened in fall 2021 after the renovation of the west wing of an existing campus building, includes this 1,900-square-foot active classroom/nursing skills lab. (Photo: LCCC)

The move to active spaces is a long-term trend accelerated by Covid, Warren says.

“We have moved toward this over the last five years by dividing up older buildings into more flexible spaces,” Warren says. “And in the last couple of years, we built or renovated several buildings. Warren says the pandemic helped cement the trend by acting as an accelerant crucible for the future of classroom use.

Repurposing existing space and adding technology to make it telecommunication and IT-friendly are expensive, Warren says. Costs have ranged from $80,000 for a basic classroom retrofit, to $3.3 million to reconfigure 13,000 square feet of specialized nursing space.

The new active learning spaces also tend to have high IT demand that needs to be planned for, Warren says. Training faculty on how to use the facilities effectively is important, too.

From underused space to affordable housing

North Seattle College (NSC) hopes to soon transform largely unused space on campus into affordable housing.

At the suggestion of Washington state Rep. Frank Chopp, a planned NSC project may soon replace what some consider an unofficial dog park that currently occupies the space with a new affordable housing-targeted residential apartment building. The project would open in 2024 or 2025 and will have up to 200 units available for low-income groups that have particular needs for residential facilities, including a percentage set aside for Native American tenants and foster youths being transitioned to adult life, notes NSC President Chemene Crawford.

The college has authorized the redevelopment of a 2.26-acre parcel of land located on the southwest corner of campus for development by the Chief Seattle Club, a Native American-led housing and human services agency, and Bellwether Housing, an affordable housing nonprofit.

The two agencies would be responsible for financing, developing and operating the housing project and 67 tenant parking spaces. The term of the lease would be 87 years, including two years of construction. The lease will go before the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges for approval in February.

The project will be a management collaboration. A property management company, Bellwether Housing, will run the apartment complex, but the college will have 5,000 square feet of instructional/general use space located within the facility, including an Intellectual House, a multi-service/multi-cultural learning and gathering space for American Indian and Alaska Native students, faculty and staff, as well as others from various cultures and communities.

About the Author

David Tobenkin
David Tobenkin is a freelance writer in the greater Washington, D.C., area.