COOS BAY — Southwestern Oregon Community College’s Health and Science Technology building is inching closer to reality after it received a $3 million federal grant last Monday, according to a Monday World article by Saphara Harrell.
The Economic Development Administration grant helped the college fund the remainder of its $16 million project, $8 million of which came from a state matching grant in 2013.
The project is an effort to modernize aging lab spaces that limit the capacity for expanding programs offered at the college.
Elise Hamner, Executive Director of Foundation and Resource Development at SWOCC, said the college had a conversation with the EDA years ago and it eventually turned in a grant application last year.
Beyond state and federal grant money, the project was also funded by donors like the Ford Family Foundation, Bay Area Hospital, the Port of Coos Bay and the physicians of the Southwest Oregon Independent Practice Association, known locally as DOCS.
This year there were 98 applicants to the nursing program, while it only accepts 29 students each year.
The new building would increase the nursing class size by 43 percent, bringing the program up to 80 nursing students over time. Since the building wouldn’t just house nursing, science-related degree enrollment would be able to grow by 160 students.
The expanded program would help meet the growing need for nurses.
Not only is the demand for nurses high, but there’s also demand for the faculty to train them. Hamner said there’s one faculty member needed per eight students.
Health services and education made up more than a quarter of the employment in Coos County last year, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Suzie McDaniel, Bay Area Hospital’s chief human resources officer, said the hospital hired almost all of SWOCC’s nursing graduates last year.
“By far the biggest number of our nurses come through the Southwestern program,” McDaniel said.
She said the hospital sees the need for nurses, already in high demand, increasing.
For her, the nursing shortage is two-fold.
First, many nurses have hit retirement age.
She said almost 20-percent of the hospital’s nurses are 60 or older.
Second, those who want to go through the nursing program face a limited number of spots available.
Even if the college does increase its capacity, it still has to find nursing instructors. Those are in short supply because many are hitting retirement age.
“It’s a perfect storm,” McDaniel said, “At the same America’s getting older and we have more and more health needs.”
Currently, there are 26 open nursing positions on Bay Area Hospital’s website.
But the hospital isn’t the only entity that would benefit from a larger nursing program.
John Burles, Chief Executive Officer of North Bend Medical Center, said it wholeheartedly supports the college’s efforts to build the expanded space.
“It’s very important for the health of the area, so to speak,” Burles said.
He said cost is a huge factor for students planning to go into the nursing program.
“It makes a real difference to the students that are able to afford to go to SWOCC as opposed to going out of town to a facility that will cost more maybe in living expense and tuition,” Burles said.
Phil Greenhill, CEO of Western Oregon Advanced Health, said most of the nurses it hires are local residents. He said the organization is very supportive of the project.
“If we can produce our own local graduates we then have a much higher potential to hire locally and keep them locally,” Greenhill said.
While the $3 million grant got the college to its initial goal, Hamner said they are continuing to raise another $1 million to furnish the facility with high-tech equipment.
After meeting with faculty, Hamner said they scaled back the original square footage and got rid of wasted space that wouldn’t have been used efficiently.
The 33,525-square-foot space will include some of the already-existing Umpqua Hall.
That building will be renovated with a second floor addition.
Once it’s gutted, labs and office space will go in.
Hamner said it’s important to note that this isn’t just creating more labor for the workforce, it’s filling positions for the community’s needs.
“It’s not just bringing jobs to the area. When we expand the number of graduates who are trained professionals, it doesn’t bring jobs it saves jobs,” Hamner said.
She said if businesses can’t hire for positions, eventually they’ll cut them.
“If you create a department in the hospital to see heart patients, if you can’t hire the people locally to keep that program going, then you’ll cut the program,” Hamner said.
“No way,” was Hamner’s response when asked if she was surprised the college got the grant.
“I don’t mean to sound flippant at all, but it’s a huge project and it’ll have impact on this community for decades,” she said, “I knew we’d get it.”
The project is expected the break ground early next year.