Clemson starts work on N. Chas. graduate center

The 70,000-square-foot Zucker Family Graduate Education Center is scheduled to be completed by fall 2016.

In less than two years, engineering majors will be able to start earning graduate and postgraduate degrees on the old Navy base in North Charleston.

Clemson University kicked off construction of the $21.5 million Zucker Family Graduate Education Center during a blustery ceremony Thursday morning near the Cooper River.

When its doors open for the fall 2016 semester, the Upstate school’s 70,000-square-foot higher-learning outpost will offer master’s and doctoral degrees, starting with mechanical engineering and gradually folding in other technical disciplines that aren’t available in the region now. It also will provide opportunities for businesses to collaborate in the research.

The center is being built on a gritty former industrial site and will be the latest addition to Clemson’s Restoration Institute campus, near the south end of the former Naval Base. It’s expected eventually to grow to about 200 students, 12 faculty members, 40 researchers and support staffers.

The building will be the “academic anchor” in the institute’s “applied technology park,” the university said.

“Here we have the Hunley submarine in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center — that focuses on our past,” Clemson President Jim Clements said, using a bullhorn to address about 75 local middle-schoolers and other onlookers Thursday. “Over there we have the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center — that deals with the present. And today we break ground on the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center, and that’s all about the future.”

In addition to the classroom and lab space, offices will be leased to private businesses that want to collaborate with faculty, students and researchers. In that way, it would resemble a coastal version of Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville.

“There’s an economic development piece,” Clements said. “We love our enterprise campuses.”

The public-private venture is funded in part by a $5 million donation from the Zucker family, who own The InterTech Group Inc. The North Charleston-based company operates and invests in an array of energy and manufacturing businesses around the world, including an aerospace-parts supplier in its home city. It’s also been a big supporter of local education programs for years.

Jonathan Zucker, InterTech’s president, took the controls of a huge excavator and lowered the giant clawed bucket into the ground, marking the start of the Clemson project.

His mother, CEO Anita Zucker, said the center will fill a gap in the region at a time when more jobs require skills that involve science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

“I’m passionate about STEM. I’m passionate about education. And I’m passionate about our region and what’s happening here,” she said. “For years our business community has complained that we don’t have enough graduate-level courses in engineering. Well, I feel like that call will finally be answered with this new center.”

The Zucker family gift was announced in mid-2012. The rest of the project’s cost is being financed by a combination of state infrastructure bond funds and money from the federal Economic Development Administration.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.