Exclusive: Construction Projects Highlight nearly $119M Targeted for South Carolina Higher Ed, Training Programs

Richard Breen

Monday, August 5th, 2019

A mini-boom in higher education construction spending could be on the way, after South Carolina’s General Assembly approved millions of dollars for projects around the state.

The Capital Reserve Fund is one of two rainy-day accounts designed for legislators to patch over budget holes in lean times. When not needed for that purpose, it is often used for projects at state agencies and higher education institutions.

This year, 32 of 34 line items in the bill are for higher education and vocational training projects. Together, they total nearly $119 million and most of the projects are described as repair, renovation, expansion or new construction.

“The monies appropriated from the Capital Reserve Fund for higher ed repairs and renovations is not only larger this year, but it is spread out among many agencies,” said Leslie B. Clark, the South Carolina government relations and division director with Carolinas AGC, a construction industry trade group. “Many of our members perform work on state projects and will no doubt take advantage of the opportunity to bid on the many projects that are delineated in the bill.”

The projects span 20 college campuses across the state. Coastal Carolina University received $5 million for an academic enrichment center. It is in the design phase with Garvin Design Group having been selected as the architect, according to Caroline P. Rohr, external communications coordinator at CCU.

She said the total project cost is estimated at $28.5 million. No contractor has been selected.

“Estimated completion would be 2-2.5 years,” Rohr said. “The remaining $23,500,000 will be funded by the penny tax that supports education in Horry County, so no debt will be taken on to complete this project.”

USC Beaufort received $4.5 million for a library-classroom building expansion. The 48,500-square-foot multipurpose academic building would help alleviate space constraints at the school’s booming main campus in Bluffton.

“The Legislature is mindful of the fact that USCB was the fifth-fastest-growing public college in the country over the period of 2005-15 and that it remains among the top 10,” said Dr. Al M. Panu, the school’s chancellor.

USCB has requested $25 million for the project and has received $6.2 million in total state funding so far.

Examples of some other projects funded in the bill, based on public documents from the schools and S.C. Commission on Higher Education:

- The Citadel received $7.5 million for Capers Hall. The school’s iconic, 70-year-old, 75,000-square-foot classroom building is slated to be replaced by a new, 105,000-square-foot facility that will be more earthquake resistant. Total project cost is estimated to be $51 million.

- The University of Charleston (aka College of Charleston) received $7 million for renovations to the Stern Student Center. Details include the conversion of the former swimming teams’ pool into a student fitness center, as well as new meeting space and renovations to the food court. The project’s total cost is estimated at $16.25 million.

- Francis Marion University received $5 million for a freshwater ecology center. The 12,000-square-foot facility is expected to include conference, classroom, lab and office space. It will sit on 146 acres that include a 20-acre lake.

- USC Sumter received $2.25 million to help renovate its science building. The school said all its students take courses in the building to fulfill their general education requirements, but “its labs and classrooms have not been improved in an appreciable way in nearly 50 years.”

The higher-ed construction market is large and growing, according to Andy Sherman, chief executive with Sherman Construction Co., which is based in Piedmont and has done work at colleges and universities across the state.

“It’s been increasing ever since the recovery started,” he said. “During the Great Recession, they had suspended a lot of the university projects.”

But it’s not just catch-up. Sherman said recent projects they have worked on at Clemson University have been based on that school’s growth.

The higher-ed market is also becoming more specialized, according to Margaret Colquitt, a vice president with Columbia-based Hood Construction Co., which has completed projects at state universities and technical colleges.

“For technical colleges, some are planning buildings that address very specific workforce development initiatives,” she said. “Public universities have other unique building needs, based on individualized focus and emerging technologies. For instance, Clemson often partners with GHS/Prisma Health for biotech and genetics, then with BMW and others for automotive engineering, as well as others for wind turbine technologies in the Charleston area, etc. etc.”

Colquitt agreed the market is in “growth mode.”

“And there’s also the boom in student housing,” she said.

The Capital Reserve Fund projects are in varying degrees of development and the millions in allocations for them will slowly work their way into the state’s economy.

“It takes a while,” said Brock Koonce, marketing coordinator with THS Constructors Inc., which is based in Greenville and has worked on projects at public and private colleges across the state. “Because it’s state dollars, it has to go out for public bid.”

Once bids are requested, interested construction firms will meet with the schools and then prepare a bid, a process than can take several weeks, according to Koonce. Then the schools must analyze each bid.

“There’s due diligence that public universities have to do – and private universities as well,” he said.

While shiny, new facilities will be appearing on college campuses in the coming years, some are also mindful of an additional return on investment.

“Higher education is such a huge piece of how we create jobs and develop a workforce,” Koonce said.

As USCB’s Panu explained: “Universities are drivers for capital investment because workforce development spurs enterprise and, therefore, job creation.”