College of Charleston President McConnell: Bond bill is ‘overdue’

The Albert Simons Center for the Arts at the College of Charleston.

College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell is urging state lawmakers to pass a $236 million bond proposal that would fund “long overdue” construction projects at the college and other public universities and technical schools.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 16-5 last week to advance the measure. McConnell, the former president pro tempore of the South Carolina Senate, and leaders from other public universities attended the committee meeting to express their support.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, allocates $91 million for technical colleges and $131 million for public universities in addition to $15 million for state armories.

“Public buildings are getting treated like the road system,” McConnell said in an interview with The Post and Courier at the college’s Board of Trustees meeting Friday. “They’re deteriorating and the more they deteriorate without being repaired, the more expensive they ultimately become.”

Under the Senate proposal, the College of Charleston would receive $2 million for Simons Center for the Arts repairs and $5 million for Stern Center renovations. The Senate measure is less than half the size of the $500 million House bond bill, which House leaders defeated after Gov. Nikki Haley threatened to veto it. In a public campaign against the borrowing bill, Haley slammed the House proposal, calling it “irresponsible” and akin to taking on credit card debt.

Likewise, Haley has vowed to veto Leatherman’s bill. A two-thirds majority in both chambers is required to override Haley’s veto.

“We could have passed a bond bill (in the House) as we had it written last time, but there wasn’t enough support to override the governor’s threatened veto,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, chairman of the House Higher Education Subcommittee. If the Senate approves a bond bill, Merrill said the House “wouldn’t have a choice but to have that debate again.”

Inside his airy office in historic Randolph Hall, McConnell pointed behind him, toward the wall facing St. Philip Street.

“Right across the street. Right there. The Simons Art Center,” he said. “Built for around 700 students. 5,000 students use it. It’s 30 years old. It’s leaking. It’s got buckling boards in some performance areas. It needs to be upgraded.”

As the college prepares to discontinue its swimming and diving program next month, McConnell said funding for the Stern Center, the hub of student activities on campus, would be used to repurpose the 19,000 square-foot pool facility into additional meeting rooms.

Other Lowcountry universities that would benefit from the Senate bond bill include The Citadel, which would receive $7 million — the majority of which would be used to pay for construction of a new Capers Hall — and the Medical University of South Carolina, which would receive $20 million for its new women’s and children’s hospital.

“I’m a conservative leader, but we have to make investments that are meaningful to generate the infrastructure to train the future,” said MUSC President David Cole. The women’s and children’s hospital, which will be funded primarily through federal loans and private donations, is expected to cost $350 million and is scheduled for completion in 2019.

The College of Charleston is home to 87 buildings over 100 years of age. About 15 percent of student tuition is currently used for building maintenance. The college originally had asked the Legislature for $13 million for the Simons Center, $10 million for the Stern Center and an additional $20 million for the Willmard A. Silcox Physical Education and Health Center, a Great Depression-era building where “concrete is falling off the windows.”

“I’m not talking about new stuff. I’m talking about repairing what we got,” McConnell said. “We’re the largest preservation institute on the peninsula. We have to maintain these buildings.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764