County’s elected leaders hear an update on the joint Suncoast Technical College/new North Port Library

Facility scheduled to open during the 2017-18 school year near Interstate 75

Todd Bowden explains the phasing-in of programs at the new STC. Rachel Hackney photo

Almost exactly three years ago, representatives of the Sarasota County Schools and Sarasota County Government announced their planning for the combination of a new technical college and a new county library in North Port.

Flash forward to Jan. 20 of this year: Todd Bowden, who will become superintendent of the school district next month, and Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, spent about 30 minutes during the 2017 Convocation of Governments discussing the facilities that are expected to open in the fall.

The meeting was held at the Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.

The total cost of the North Port facility is about $27 million, district Communications Specialist Scott Ferguson told The Sarasota News Leader. That encompasses funding from all sources, he said, and it includes the expenses for furniture, expenses and equipment.

The county has contributed to the cost because of the library. A Jan. 3 memo to the County Commission also reported that the county had received another $500,000 state grant for the project.

August is the target date for the opening of the North Port STC, “but that timeline could be affected by summer weather,” Ferguson told the News Leader in a Jan 24 email.

Sarabeth Kalajian explains facets of the joint county library/STC project as Todd Bowden listens. Rachel Hackney photo

When Bowden and Kalajian unveiled the plans at the 2014 Convocation of Governments, Bowden was still serving as executive director of career, technical and adult education for the Sarasota County Schools. His replacement in that position — Ron DiPillo — was in Ohio because of a family death, Bowden explained on Jan. 20 to commissioners and council members from Sarasota County and the Cities of Sarasota, North Port and Venice — as well as to members of the School Board. Therefore, Bowden was joining Kalajian in the update. She needed no introduction, he said. “I think everybody knows my new best friend, Sarabeth.”

Providing a bit of history, Kalajian talked of the initial correspondence she engaged in with district staff in 2013. When it became clear that the School Board was going to go ahead with constructing a technical college in North Port, she continued, “it seemed to be just the perfect combination, perfect timing,” to include a new North Port library in the plans.

Bowden then pointed out that he immediately was drawn to the site that the district eventually was able to acquire. Having worked on a Hillsborough County technical center project whose location stymied its potential, he said, “I really had that mindset” that the new North Port Suncoast Technical College (STC) needed to be in a highly visible place.

Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, presented this rendering on Sept. 12, 2016. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The site is located off Toledo Blade Boulevard, with easy access to Interstate 75, he pointed out.

“It wasn’t the easiest site to acquire,” he added, because it was in foreclosure, and it was larger than the 25 acres the School Board needed for the new school.

Yet, it met some of the most important criteria for the facility, he said, because of its high visibility from the interstate and its distance from the existing North Port Library.

The project also will encompass a conference center, Kalajian noted, thanks to the City of North Port’s interest and engagement with the School Board and county staff.

Over the previous week to 10 days, Bowden pointed out, vertical construction of the new STC has been moving along rapidly.

STC programs to be implemented in phases

Regarding the programs for the new technical college, Bowden explained that whenever such a facility is in the planning stages, the goal is for its programs not to compete with those at nearby schools. In this case, he said, Charlotte Technical College is relatively close to the North Port site. Therefore, Sarasota School District staff took that school’s offerings into consideration when planning for the North Port STC.

A rendering shows the main entrance of the North Port STC. Image courtesy Sarasota County

North Port STC’s programs will be implemented in two phases, Bowden pointed out. The first three — Accounting Operations, Administrative Office Specialist and Business Management & Analysis — are what he characterized as “our bread and butter.”

Others on the list are Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Practical Nurse (LPN), Carpentry, Culinary Arts and Industrial Technologies.

In looking at the needs of North Port employers, Bowden noted, “it became apparent that within a very small area around our technical college, there was specifically the opportunity for carpentry and, especially, cabinet-making. … You have the opportunity to support … industry that is rooted right there in North Port.”

Regarding the Industrial Technologies program, Bowden explained that manufacturers “do not operate without an industrial maintenance department.” The appeal of such a program from the standpoint of a technical college, he said, is the ability to provide cross training. To work in industrial maintenance, he said, “you have to know mechanics; you have to know hydraulics; you have to know how to weld.” The shop on the North Port campus will teach a variety of trades, he pointed out.

The Culinary Arts program originally was planned as part of Phase 2, he continued, but, because of the conference center, it was moved to Phase 1. “This morning’s meeting wouldn’t be nearly as fun without a little treat for you as you arrived,” he noted, referring to the pastries, fruit and beverages the Sarasota STC’s Culinary Arts students had provided for the attendees.

County Commissioner Mike Moran speaks with Venice City Councilwoman Jeanette Gates and Gates’ daughter, Jackie, a student at STC in Sarasota. Rachel Hackney photo

Phase 2, Bowden said, is planned to include Automotive Technology, Cosmetology, Commercial Driving License, Emergency Medical Technician and Paramedic programs. However, Bowden noted, classes in auto technology are those “I am least confident about.”

The Sarasota STC already has such a program, as does Charlotte Tech, he said. “If we move forward with a commercial driving course,” he continued, it would make more sense to focus on a diesel mechanics program, because of the “tremendous need” in the community. “We may pivot from auto tech …”

Instruction that leads to students being able to get a commercial driver’s license, he noted, “is a rather short-term program with abundant career opportunities,” and such programs “are very difficult to find.”

Library features

Regarding the features being planned for the Shannon Staub Public Library within the new Suncoast Technical College, Kalajian said that as a result of meetings with community residents, the facility not only will offer more meeting areas but it also will have the first “maker” space in a county library. That section will offer a lot of flexibility to users, she added, and it will have equipment and resources on hand that the average person cannot afford to purchase.

County staff may ask the STC students to help with the final name for that area, she said. Two potential options are “DabbleWorks” and “Gizmo Dojo.”

Because of the library’s location on the college campus, she noted, the hours “will be slightly different” than those for other county libraries: an earlier start and probably a later closing time.

School Board Chair Caroline Zucker chats with Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman. Rachel Hackney photo

Programs for all ages will be offered, Kalajian said. Additionally, the Friends of the Library organization for the facility will have its own bookstore, which will operate in conjunction with the campus bookshop and a “grab-and-go” food section.

Another relatively new feature for county libraries will be included as well, she noted: an automated check-in and sorting system. “It’s a little bit Rube Goldberg-ish.”

Hiring of staff for the library will begin soon, she said.

“What a perfect example to start this meeting off with today,” County Commissioner Charles Hines told Bowden and Kalajian. Speaking of the elected leaders of the county, Hines continued, “We can’t operate anymore independently, in an isolated way.”

Just two years ago, Hines added, people attending the Convocation talked of the difficulty of making the North Port STC/library facility a reality. Yet, “it’s done; we did it. Use this as an example [in discussing ways to collaborate in the future].”

“Commissioner Hines summed up my kudos,” North Port Mayor Linda Yates told Bowden and Kalajian. “I’m not only excited, I’m ecstatic.”