COVINGTON, Ky. -- Several members of the board that oversees Gateway Community & Technical College and the mayor of Covington have voiced concerns about the school's long-term commitment to its Urban/Metro Campus in downtown Covington.
Alarm bells sounded for some of these board members and the mayor after Gateway President Fernando Figueroa announced last week that the business and education programs would be moved out of Covington to the Gateway campus in Boone County in the fall.
Figueroa, his staff and the board chairman stress there is no intention to abandon an urban campus that has never lived up to any of the lofty promises that were made when it was announced in May 2009.
"… I want to assure the board that Gateway remains steadfast in its commitment to the Urban Campus. We are currently reviewing how we can more effectively align our Urban programming to match the needs and energies of the river cities," Figueroa said in an email that was distributed to board members last week.
But some board members and the mayor made it clear they believe relocating the "home campus" for the two programs, 116 students and four faculty members to Boone County can't be interpreted as good news for the urban campus in Covington's downtown business district.
Board chair Ken Paul stressed the urban campus is vitally important to the school, adding he plans to seek further information about Figueroa's decision in meetings over the next two weeks.
His predecessor as chair, board member Jeff Groob, was highly critical of the plan to relocate the programs. Because there was no input from the board or the community, Groob said, he is worried moving the two programs may be a first step toward cutting costs and shutting down Gateway's Two Rivers building at Fifth and Scott streets.
"When you add the departure of transportation-related programs … to the departure of business and education, as well as the closing of visual communications, over 40 programs/degrees/diplomas/certificates have left or will soon be gone from the urban campus," Groob said in an email.
In recent years, city officials and representatives of a long list of business and civic organizations have been enthusiastic supporters of the downtown project. The property investment and an influx of students were seen as key elements of an effort to rebuild a downtown business district that had been decimated by the explosive growth of suburban shopping malls in the 1970s.
Former Covington mayors Chuck Scheper and Sherry Carran were wholehearted supporters of the urban campus. Current Covington Mayor Joe Meyer made it clear that he doesn't want the programs to be relocated.
"Piece by piece, Gateway is abandoning its promises and commitment to Covington," Meyer said. "The middle-skill training programs have all been moved to Boone County, the automotive training to Fort Wright, and now the business administration systems and education programs will be stripped from Covington. How disappointing."
The 116 students -- 76 in business and 40 in education -- represent nearly 11 percent of the 1,076 who attend at least one class each week at the Urban/Metro campus.
Since the fall of 2014, the number of students taking at least one class downtown has decreased from 1,302 to 1,076, a decline of 17 percent, according to data gathered two years ago and then updated last week by Michelle Sjogren, director of communications for the college.
Subtracting the education and business students would bring downtown enrollment next fall to 960, less than 40 percent of the student population of 2,500 that was projected for fall 2014 in Gateway's master plan.
Overall, Gateway's enrollment at campuses in Covington, Edgewood and Boone County has declined about 3 percent, to 4,450 students in the last two years.
Of the 40 education students, all of them plan to complete two years at Gateway and then transfer to a four-your institution so they can become teachers, Sjogren said. Some of the business students will transfer to a four-year college, while others will opt for a two-year associate's degree, she said.
In spelling out his rationale for the relocation decision in his email, Figueroa said the move would enhance enrollment in both programs and that 64 percent of the business students and 69 percent of the education students live closer to the Boone County campus than to the urban campus.
"The program review and enrollment projections show continued decline in program enrollment as well as course enrollments in a program that should be thriving. It is important to look at program and course enrollments, because faculty believe the decline is due to students enrolling in the AA (Associate of Arts) business pathway … ," Figueroa wrote.
During the splashy event to announce the urban campus plan eight years ago, Gateway talked about investing some $80 million over the next decade in its downtown campus. The school also estimated that the downtown campus eventually would attract 5,000 students each week.
"We were encouraged early by the community to think big," Ed Hughes, Gateway president and CEO at the time, said in May 2009.
Figueroa made the decision to move the two programs, and Gateway's 10-person board played no role, according to board chair Paul.
Paul said he intends to get more detail about the relocation in the next couple of weeks, including a Feb. 9 board meeting. He acknowledged Gateway may have promised far more than it could ever deliver from the start.
"With the original PR (public relations announcements) about the urban campus and the students, the property and the budget -- even myself as a past salesman -- good sales people tend to over-project and now reality has started to come into play," said Paul, who had a long career in sales and management with Cincinnati Bell before he retired.
"They were very aggressive numbers and now reality has started to set in," he said.
"We are very concerned about the people in the river cities (along the Ohio River), because we know that they need access to an education because the numbers show that fewer of them go to college," Paul said.
He also said he was concerned that Gateway acknowledged some classes were located in downtown buildings merely to give the appearance that the buildings were being utilized and not sitting empty.
Paul said Figueroa's decision to relocate the classes could be, in part, a response to the board's request for a comprehensive report on how all of the Gateway properties are being used.
The Gateway Foundation, which is separate from the board that oversees the college, acquired eight buildings for about $7 million; five are being used now. A sixth building in the 600 block of Scott Street has been demolished for a project that may never materialize, and the college isn't using two.
Board member Groob, who lives in Covington and has emerged in recent years as the most outspoken of the 10 board members, made it clear he doesn't like the decision or how it was made.
"The impact of this decision and its rationale is that Gateway is abandoning Covington, just like when the Colts moved out of Baltimore in the dark of night," said Groob, referring to the NFL Colts' decision in 1984 to relocate to Indianapolis with a surreptitious late-night move.
Both Paul and Groob disagreed that programs for white-collar jobs were exiting Covington and leaving behind those that might be described as blue collar. But both men agreed that many blue-collar jobs are paying far more than some white-collar positions.
Like Paul and Groob, board member Paul Whalen said he had received no details about the proposed move and acknowledged that Figueroa has the authority to relocate programs without seeking board approval.
"I think there is some concern among board members (about the relocation)," said Whalen, who pointed out that Figueroa "didn't consult with the board" before announcing the decision.
Whalen said he would withhold further comment until he gets more information at the February board meeting.
While Gateway originally said that $80 million would be invested in the downtown campus, more than $7 million has been spent on renovation and demolition in addition to the $7 million spent on buying property.
Gateway isn't using the foundation's biggest investment, a $2.8 million building that once housed the Covington YMCA at 19 E. Pike St., nor the former Senior Citizens' Center at 34 W. Fifth St., which was acquired at no cost from the state.
Former City Commissioner Chuck Eilerman, who served four years until the end of 2016 and sells real estate for Huff Commercial, said he has always been enthusiastic in his support of Gateway's urban campus.
"But if they're not going to use properties like Two Rivers or the YMCA, I would hope that they would move quickly to find new owners so that the buildings don't just languish downtown," he said.