MCC claims need for health, wellness expansion

Note to readers: This article is part one of a two-day series that will explore McHenry County College’s proposed expansion plan.

CRYSTAL LAKE – McHenry County College officials are making the case for expanding health and wellness programs with a multimillion dollar building, a plan some have criticized as wasteful.

The college is in the beginning stages of a feasibility study that will determine whether a planned $42 million building expansion is possible. Preliminary plans call for a 120,000-square-foot building for health sciences and wellness classrooms, labs, a health clinic and a fitness center.

“No matter what anybody says, there is no space for us to put those labs,” McHenry County College President Vicky Smith said.

An expansion would allow the college to grow programs in respiratory and physical therapy, and health information technology – programs that have been put on hold for lack of space.

To maintain accreditation, health programs require dedicated classrooms. For example, only nursing lab classes can be held in that space. When the college began its occupational therapy assistant program, it revamped existing classroom space to make room for a laboratory used only for those classes.

“If these were business courses or English courses, they could be held in a church basement,” MCC Trustee Ron Parrish said.

Critics of MCC’s plan maintain that there are not enough health care jobs available in the county to justify expanding the health and wellness curriculum.

“This program is a cruel hoax on the students who enroll expecting to be able to find jobs in health care in McHenry County,” Lakewood resident Stephen Willson told MCC trustees at a meeting in October.

According to the most recent McHenry County Jobs Report, health care and social assistance jobs will grow by 10 percent, or add more than 1,000 jobs between 2012 and 2015. The college is expecting 1,400 more students each year to move through the programs.

Recent letters to the Northwest Herald editor called the fitness center plans an unnecessary duplication of services already offered in the county, and others have said the college’s annual levy increases already are “squeezing the taxpayers” in a difficult economic climate.

According to figures provided by the college, classrooms are used at an average of just more than 45 percent throughout a 15-hour, seven-day period. Peak times are from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, when that percentage can be as high as 87 percent full.

MCC has about 97 gross square feet per student, less than some other community colleges in the region and less than other comparable colleges. Gross square feet refers to the total amount of space inside a building, including hallways and common areas. It’s not a measurement of usable space.

Harper College in Palatine has 134 gross square feet per student, College of DuPage has 115, Moraine Valley Community College has 85, Elgin Community College has 131, and College of Lake County has 169, according to MCC’s facilities master plan. The master plan is a driver for this and future expansion projects.

Wight and Co., the college’s Darien-based architecture firm, has recommended MCC plan for between 120 and 125 gross square feet per student as it grows.

“As the college sits right now, we are 100,000 square feet below where we need to be,” Smith said.

The college’s enrollment figures continue to grow despite local school districts that have posted declines in recent years.

“The whole mission and purpose of this college is to provide higher education to McHenry County residents,” Smith said. “All residents, not just recent high school graduates.”

According to the college, MCC’s student body increased 1.3 percent over last year. Credit hours jumped 7.2 percent this year.

Additionally, college officials believe that with targeted programming, more residents will enroll.

“When you deliver programs that people need, people will come,” board Chairwoman Mary Miller said.

PART TWO: How to pay for any expansion at the college has been an item of contention for local taxpayers. The Northwest Herald will explore financial implications of the health sciences facility at McHenry County College in Monday’s edition.

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