MOUNT PLEASANT - Francis Marion University hopes to enroll its first students at a satellite campus here this fall, but finding a suitable site has proven tricky.
Town and university officials have looked at several possibilities but still have not found a building large enough to accommodate up to 300 students and faculty at first, and potentially many more down the road, plus sufficient parking for all.
There's also the challenge of ensuring that it has a suitable higher-ed look, said Tucker Mitchell, the university's director of public affairs.
"One of the things we felt was important is that it needs to have a collegiate feel to it," Mitchell said. "We are a college. We don't really want to be running out of a former grocery store."
Other aspects of the plan, announced last year, have fallen into place. The S.C. Commission on Higher Education has given its administrative approval, and Mitchell said the university will begin with a program that will give registered nurses with a two-year degree a chance to earn a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.
He said a study has shown there are approximately 2,000 nurses with a two-year degree in the Lowcountry, "so there are quite a few potential candidates for this."
Also, the Institute of Medicine recently recommended that the nation should increase the proportion of nurses with a baccalaureate degree to 80 percent by 2020. It currently is 50 percent.
Former Mayor Billy Swails kick started the satellite campus with an offer to Francis Marion that was very similar to an offer the town previous made successfully to Trident Technical College: The town would offer about $1.5 million worth of help with securing a building and infrastructure if the school would agree to open a campus here.
"I'm disappointed it hasn't come to fruition yet," Swails said, "but I've not contacted anybody or asked any questions."
Swails left office in December, and Mayor Linda Page said the town stands by its commitment - a commitment that will be more fully fleshed out once a site is found.
"We're looking at a collaboration, a cooperative effort to get higher education for the community," she said, adding that it's unclear if the town would help buy or lease the property. It's also unclear where in town it might be located.
"Nothing is written in stone," she said. "Any property we have available is probably a retail space, and retail spaces aren't based on one student, one car who will stay for an extended period of time. ... Obviously, they don't want to be in just a commercial storefront."
Town Councilman Chris O'Neal, chair of the Finance Committee, said Swails had a particular building in mind, but it's no longer available, "so I think that's what has caused some of the delay and at least some of the confusion on both sides as far as how we're going to move forward."
O'Neal said both the town and university still seem very hopeful something can be worked out.
Page said she hoped a proposal would be ready for Town Council's review in April or May, but "we haven't put any deadline that you have to do it by a certain amount of time."
Mitchell said even if a site is found soon, Francis Marion still may have to make arrangements for temporary classrooms somewhere else this fall while that property is improved or refurbished.
He said Francis Marion has reserve money to cover some of its upfront costs, and currently is working on its 2014-15 budget that takes effect July 1, but the university does not plan to subsidize its new Mount Pleasant campus in the long run.
"We're not going to spend any money that impacts operations at the Florence campus," Mitchell said. "This initiative in Mount Pleasant has got to pay for itself. The budget has got to show tuition payments covering the expenses of us being in Mount Pleasant."
The college hopes to enroll between 50 and 300 students this fall, then could add other courses of study, such as business or industrial engineering, as the school sees fit. Currently, about 8 percent to 11 percent of Francis Marion students come from the tri-county area, and it remains to be seen how that number will change as the university expands here.
"We don't think it will be bursting at the seams to begin with," Mitchell said of the Mount Pleasant campus, "but we think it could ramp up quite quickly over the next three to five years. By no means do we intend to only offer nursing."
The town's help with securing a campus has made it easier for Francis Marion to get the necessary state approval to expand, and the town hopes to see its own benefits.
Page said the advantage to the town goes beyond offering more educational opportunities to Lowcountry students who want to stay close to home.
"I look at it more as an economic development driver," she said. "I don't believe it's the municipality's obligation to go out and enter into these collaborative agreements with higher ed universities. What I do believe is if we want to have trained talent, to have our students to have the educational opportunities for them to get high paying jobs, then we're more likely to attract that person or company looking for that employee."
Still, the town's financial commitment to the university would come at a time when Town Council is looking at raising property taxes and fees to pay for repairing roads and other costs.
"I think there's a lot of concern among the council, and that's why it's incumbent upon Francis Marion to show how they're going to add value to the citizens," O'Neal said. "It will be met with a fair amount of discussion and will have to be a winning proposition for both sides for us to move forward."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.