WEST JEFFERSON — Ashe County elected officials and community members gathered alongside the Wilkes Community College Board of Trustees and administrators at the future site of the WCC: Ashe Campus expansion for a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, Aug. 8.

“This is about growing a stronger future for Ashe County,” Chris Robinson, WCC vice president of workforce development and community, said. “This building is about students — first, last and always.”

The two-story, 36,000 square-foot expansion will increase opportunities for students in Ashe County, featuring new computer labs, more classroom space, a healthcare simulation lab and other cutting-edge technology, according to a release from WCC. The expansion will also include a separate cosmetology wing, an outdoor learning area and a 1,400- square-foot meeting space for the community to reserve.

Expected to be completed in 2021, the $12 million expansion project has been in its early stages of development for several years. In November 2018, the county commissioners committed up to $8 million in county funding for the project, in addition to the $3 million being provided by bond money from WCC, Ashe Post and Times previously reported.

The ceremony commenced with remarks from WCC President Jeff Cox, who thanked the many people in attendance, including the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, West Jefferson and Jefferson aldermen, members of the Ashe County Board of Education, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kitty Honeycutt and Sheriff B. Phil Howell.

“We’re thrilled to be here and see this project get started,” Cox said.

WCC Board of Trustees member Hobie Davis announced during the ceremony that $964,000 of the remaining $1 million for the expansion project has been raised through individual donors.

Following the announcement, Blue Ridge Energy CEO Doug Johnson presented a $150,000 check for the expansion to the WCC Board of Trustees, allowing the project to reach its goal for funding.

Robinson, who serves as the director of the expansion project, has been involved with the Ashe Campus of WCC for more than two decades. In his time, he said his plan has always been to double the size of the Ashe Campus. Now, he said, that goal has come to fruition.

“It’s a great day for the college, but I can’t stress how much it means to this community,” Robinson said. “This is home to me.”

Both the Town of West Jefferson and Jefferson have each allocated funds for the expansion of the Ashe Campus. Jefferson Alderman Charles Caudill, who attended the Ashe Campus of WCC in the 1970s and spent some years as a teacher at the college, said he was excited to see the project begin.

“This is the future of Ashe County right here,” Caudill said. “The biggest problem that we have in the mountains is we export our greatest asset, and that’s our young, brightest people. This is a way to keep some of those good, smart, intelligent folks here.”

Bailey Witherspoon, a student of WCC, will receive her associate’s degree exclusively through the WCC: Ashe Campus in December and is planning to attend Appalachian State University in the spring.

“With the expansion of the Ashe Campus, more students just like me will be able to achieve their goals of higher education,” Witherspoon said. “For many people living in such a rural area, driving to main campus creates a financial burden. This expansion will create so many opportunities for our area.”

Both McNeil and Larry Dix of the board of commissioners noted many of the benefits the expansion will have on the county for those of all ages through job-specific workforce development.

“Hopefully people can walk out of here and go to work,” McNeil said. “They can walk out of here with a skill and contribute to the community.”

Dix added that Ashe County enjoys a low unemployment rate but lacks an adequate number of skilled, in-county workers for available jobs. Through the Ashe Campus expansion, companies such as G.E. Aviation will no longer have to search out of county for workers, he said.

“They’ll stay here, they’ll work here and they’ll raise their families here,” Dix said.

Students at Ashe County High School and Ashe Early College will also be able to use the new facilities once the project is completed, Robinson said.

“We stand on the success of our students,” Robinson said. “We will not let you down.”

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