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WITC facilities get an upgrade

Ted Wistrom, a student in the Motorcycle, Marine and Outdoor Power Products Tech program, works in the new lab space that is part of the New Richmond campus of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College's expansion project.

Students at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College campus in New Richmond finally have a little more elbow room.

As second semester classes kicked off Jan. 12, students and staff settled in to newly remodeled space and an extensive building expansion for the first time.

"This is beautiful," said welding instructor Dan Wilkinson as he pointed out the various amenities in the program's new space. "It's a dream come true really."

Work on the 8,000-square-foot addition and the remodeling plan began last May. Total cost of the project came in at around $1.5 million in new construction and $1.1 million in remodeling.

WITC originally had hoped to construct a new 15,000-square-foot building to meet its growing classroom and lab needs, but bids exceeded the state-established spending limits.

Technical colleges are limited by the state to $1.5 million in new construction every two years plus $1.5 million of renovations every two years, unless they go to local voters for a larger referendum.

Campus Administrator Joe Huftel said it was clear that the current nationwide economic downturn would make it impossible to get such a referendum approved by voters.

"I was hoping for a much bigger project," Huftel said, noting that WITC lobbied for a federal earmark to make a bigger building possible. "We didn't get it. We did the most we could with what we had. We've still got a long way to go to get us to where we need to be for space, but I think we got a pretty good bang for our buck."

The New Richmond campus has been busting at the seams for years. Huftel said the local educational institution has had record enrollments for three years in a row and officials had run out of options for finding space for more classes.

The space crunch had been so bad, Huftel said, that the New Richmond campus hasn't been able to start a new educational program for more than five years, even though demand for new programs exists.

With the expanded and remodeled facility, Huftel said, some of WITC's most popular programs will be able to add a few more students this year and next. And the technical college will now be able to begin discussions about adding a new program in the next few years.

The waiting lists for students in some programs won't be completely eliminated, Huftel explained, but the situation should improve. And even with squeezed operational budgets, he said the technical college will do its best to meet the needs of students and businesses in the region.

"We're constantly trying to do more with less. That will be our moniker for years to come," he said. "We have employers screaming for skilled employees, yet the revenue stream for us in the future is a bit unclear."

The newly constructed portion of WITC now houses the Welding and Motorcycle, Marine & Outdoor Power Products Tech programs. It also provided additional shipping, receiving and storage capacity for the maintenance department, as well as a new four-car garage.

The space where the educational programs were housed previously was remodeled for use by other classes, such as the Industrial Automation, Controls and Networking program, Automated Packaging & Systems Technician Program and Machine Tooling program.

Remodeled space in the Power Equipment Center now offers more space and a better learning environment for programs like Emergency Medical Services and Fire/Rescue, Agricultural Power and Law Enforcement-Corrections programs. The improved corrections program space now includes an official jail cell, a new "booking" area and other features to enhance training.

Construction manager for the WITC project was local contractor Derrick Construction. Huftel said the company did a tremendous job and helped the technical college get the most out of the money they had to spend. And the project was completed about two months ahead of schedule, giving programs plenty of time to move in and get settled.

"The project went terrific," he said. "I can't say enough great things about Derrick Construction."

Along with the finished project, some of WITC's immediate space needs will be addressed by the pending availability of the New Richmond Middle School property beginning in June. WITC has signed an agreement to be part of the new community center facility.

Plans call for a new Human Services Associate degree program to be offered at the community center facility. Other WITC classes will also be conducted at the new center.

The satellite arrangement won't completely solve WITC's space crunch either. Huftel noted that the school will almost immediately begin working on plans for an additional expansion in 2012, when WITC will again be allowed to spend up to $1.5 million on new construction and $1.5 million on remodeling.

"I'm glad this project is over," Huftel said. "But I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and start phase two now."

If and when the second phase is accomplished, the technical college will explore even more new program ideas, such as a surgical technician degree, that would meet the needs of employers in the area, Huftel said.

The second phase would likely include a complete remodeling of the power equipment center and health sciences classrooms, a new test-taking center, expanded school store space and a complete facelift of the conference center.