February 22, 2020

Quinn: Limited options led to relocation of Kirtland Community College’s main campus


GRAYLING — Kirtland Community College President Tom Quinn said declining regional population and enrollment were some of the factors that led to the board’s decision June 20 to relocate the college’s operations to Grayling.

“In 2013 we had a millage to repair and refurbish the Roscommon campus,” Quinn told the Herald. “That millage failed. Our target at the time was to turn that campus into a residential campus. If you are going to have a residential campus you have to have things for students to do.”

“It was a very thought-provoking time for us,” Quinn continued.

Quinn said prior to the failure of the millage, the college was focused on its Roscommon campus. However, after the millage failure the college went back to the drawing board by hosting citizen forums to talk with various people in the communities it serves to find out what the citizens felt needed to be done.

“We knew that maybe that vision (of the Roscommon campus) wasn’t going to work for us,” he said.

Another problem the college faced over and above its aging campus was a trend of declining enrollment, not only at the college but also with the area school districts it draws the majority of its students from.

“Our population base is not here,” Quinn said. “Basically, we have 42 ZIP codes that we have taxpayers in. But the population base is about 92,000 people. If you really look at a college and what kind of population base it needs to have, that is about 250,000 people.”

Compounding the issue is the aging population in the area the college serves. Quinn said the average age increased by 2.4 years during a four-year timespan.

“We had to do some different things in this world to survive,” he said. “Status quo wasn’t going to work. When you have that kind of an age increase you have two things, young people are moving out or old people are moving in.”

Another struggle the college faces is the “migrant population base” of non-homestead or seasonal residents who do not turn to Kirtland for their higher education.

Quinn said these issues pose great challenges to the college to maintain and increase its student population.

“It is a very, very difficult population base to recruit students,” he said. “What we need to do is expand our boundaries.”

As Kirtland began to adapt, Quinn said the college focused on two satellite campuses — West Branch and Grayling. However, as things played out, Grayling made more sense for a main location.

The Grayling campus is only a short distance north of the I-75/US-127 junction, which provides the majority of the college’s students direct access to the campus, Quinn said.

Quinn acknowledged that on several occasions he was vague when answering questions by the public about whether the college was moving to Grayling, noting his usual answer was ‘I don’t know.’ However, he added that decisions related to the facilities are ultimately made by the board of trustees, and until it makes its determination, he would be speaking out of line talking about plans.

“You understand my position,” Quinn said. “Am I going to say specifically until the board makes its decision? No.”

“The answer is always more complex than meets the eye,” he continued. “I was never prepared to say anything other than ‘I don’t know.’ Yes, I understand questions from the public. I have always felt people want an answer from me that I can’t give them.”

Quinn said the Roscommon campus has approximately 208,000 square feet of space, which can cater to a student population of about 5,000. However, Quinn said the college has never had 5,000 students. In fact, he said the college hasn’t breached 2,000 students.

“Our facilities costs were very high compared to other colleges,” he said. “We manage our other costs very well. We have been in the top 100 of the lowest net costs per student in the nation. But facility costs of our older facilities in Roscommon are an issue for us and have been for a long period of time.”

Quinn said the Roscommon campus is heated by fuel oil and the buildings are dated.

“The operational costs and the improvement costs are very high,” he said.

Quinn said the college hasn’t ignored its aging campus, and it is estimated the college would need to spend approximately $1.3 million per year for capital improvements.

“Building codes say once you begin to touch a building, you don’t improve one thing, you have to improve them all,” Quinn said. “You have quite a few buildings (in Roscommon) that don’t have sprinkler systems.”

“The routine maintenance costs of that campus are very high,” he continued. “I can tell you a $1.3 million cost passed off to 1,500 students — I can’t do that. I cannot be a good guardian of the public funds here and say that we are going to keep up with the facility costs.”

Quinn said the college hopes to sell the majority of its Roscommon campus, and that there has been some interest in the facilities.

“We would like to see it put back in public use,” he said. “We would like to see it put back on the tax rolls.”

The college also intends to sell its West Branch campus, which Quinn said was a personal project of his. Quinn said the campus wasn’t as successful as it could have been but he isn’t sure of the cause.

“This is somewhat emotional for me,” Quinn said. “I really want that West Branch campus to go. I have an investment in that. I have two years’ time invested in that — finding that location, getting things going and trying to make it work. I am not at all happy about that.”

Quinn acknowledged that several groups have approached the college on purchasing the facility, including West Branch Township and Michigan State University Extension.

In Grayling, the college has seen success with its partnerships with companies such as Fiat Chrysler, Arauco and others, which have turned to the college to provide targeted training to draw employees from.

“There are 14 industries right around (Grayling) that are working in the wood products industry,” Quinn said. “There is on the short side of 1,000 people working in that industry. It is a big industry and it is located right along I-75.”

Quinn said ultimately the deciding factors that led to move to Grayling were the location and the declining population of its tax base, and with that, the challenge of recruiting students.

“So you have an industry that needs skilled employees but 50 percent of our population base isn’t enrolled in college six months after graduation,” Quinn said. “How do we, as a community of people, solve that and keep our economy running? We said we need different kinds of programs and they require different kinds of facilities.”

At its new campus in Grayling, Quinn said the cost of operations is significantly lower because it is a newer, energy-efficient facility with a significantly smaller footprint, which will allow the college to continue to expand its offering to students at a reduced cost compared to other colleges.

“At the population base that we have here, we have to look into an expanded area and how we are going to recruit enough students here for educational opportunities to make the college sustainable,” Quinn said. “If we don’t do that, we won’t be here. It is that simple.”


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