Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

TOP STORY >>Education center on fund list

Leader staff writer

“Having a college in your hometown is a major, major deal,” Jacksonville attorney Mike Wilson said Monday of the news that funding is committed for a new Community/Air Base Education Center at Little Rock Air Force Base. Jacksonville has set aside its $5 million share of the costs, generated from a sales tax increase, and the Air Force’s $10 million share is on the verge of complete authorization and appropriation, according to the office of Cong. Vic Snyder, D-Little Rock.

The city tax included money for a swimming pool complex and for a police and fire training facility. “This Defense Authorization bill (earmarks) funding for the center,” said Jennifer Holman, spokesman Snyder. “Next, funding is expected be appropriated in the lame duck session (after November general elections),” she said. “In the House, the center will be in the Military Quality of Life Appropriations bill and in the Senate it will be in the Military Construction bill.”

Snyder, on the House Armed Services Committee, and senators Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln have been staunch supporters of the project, according to Wilson. “It is evidence of the commitment of the people in this area to education and higher education in particular,” said Wilson. Wilson and Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim are co-chairmen of the Community/Community Education Center.

An institution of higher learning in Jacksonville “would be a huge benefit for our citizens—to have access for classes close to home.” “As far as know, this is the only community in the United States that has done such a thing,” Wilson said. “It’s sort of a continuation of the effort of local people to support the Air Force Base, that began with the founding (50 years ago) of Little Rock Air Force Base. “We’ve got to create the bones of a framework for future operations (of the education center),” he said. “We’re going to need an advisory committee or board of trustees to advise the mayor and the installation commander,” he added.

“The joint education center has been a phenomenal project,” said Capt. David Faggard, of the 314th Air Education Wing’s Strategic Information Office. “It really shows the solidarity between (Little Rock Air Force Base) and Jacksonville.”

Six institutions that already hold classes at the existing center have signed on to offer classes at the new center, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Daytona Beach, Fla.; Park University of Parkville, Mo.; Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, Ill.; Webster University of St. Louis, Mo.; University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University-Beebe.

Study programs include computer science, allied health, aeronautical management, criminal justice, social psychology, industrial technology, business, human relations and public administration. Priority for class space is active-duty military, retired military, Department of Defense employees and then civilians. More than 1,045 military and 275 civilian personnel are enrolled in educational programs at the air base.

The education center, originally designed as an 82,000 square-foot facility, has been “skinnied down” to about 50,000 square feet, according to Nancy Shefflette, director of ASU-Beebe’s Little Rock Air Force Base center. Shefflette, who was on Swaim’s advisory council regarding the Air Base Education Center, said, “We’re in a better position than we’ve ever been. One of the key factors pushing this along is that the city of Jacksonville had raised its $5 million.”

She said First Arkansas Bank and Trust president Larry Wilson was working out the details on how to move the city’s money so it could be legally and appropriately spent on the project by the Air Force. She said that was based upon the $9.8 million that the Air Force is expected to have for the facility.

Assuming that Jacksonville’s $5 million is added to the pot, the size of the facility may again approach the 82,000 sq. ft. figure, she said. If the center ends up with the larger footprint, it is possible that there will be space for classes from other schools as well, Shefflette said.