Dormitories for the Alabama Center for the Arts will be built in downtown Decatur and the long-vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Center on U.S. 31 in Decatur will be home to a campus for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind after the governor on Thursday announced the projects will receive $43.5 million in state funding.

The only bill that passed other than the General Fund and education budgets in the COVID-shortened legislative session this year provided the funding for the projects. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and he said the dormitory was on his mind when he fought for a vote.

“Both of these projects are a big deal for Decatur and Morgan County,” Orr said. “I think the dormitories will be monumental for downtown Decatur, and for the Alabama Center for the Arts.”

Philip Mann, executive director of external affairs for the Alabama Center for the Arts on Second Avenue Northeast in downtown Decatur, said the student housing will transform the center, which is jointly operated by Calhoun Community College and Athens State University and offers bachelor’s degrees.

“The ‘game changer’ phrase is overused, but in this instance it really fits,” Mann said. “What we have with the Alabama Center for the Arts is a world-class facility. The infrastructure at the Alabama Center for the Arts is world-class, and the faculty and staff are top-notch. But the lack of student housing makes it difficult for us to recruit beyond just a commuter model.”

Orr said the design process for the dormitory, which will be located on property purchased by the Alabama Center for the Arts Foundation this year on Johnston Street Southeast across from Carriage House, is just beginning. He anticipates the building, which will be built using $15 million in state funding, will be three to four stories and house 70-120 students. He expects construction to begin next summer, with the dorms ready to house students by August 2022.

Mann said the housing will steer the Alabama Center for the Arts toward the model of the Savannah College of Art and Design in downtown Savannah, Georgia.

“If you look at that model, they have students from all 50 states and multiple foreign countries,” Mann said. “We are attempting to appeal to a very specific type of student that wants to pursue four-year instruction in fine arts. We want to have the opportunity to attract the best and brightest, not just from Decatur but from all around the region. We’ve been a little hamstrung by not having the ability to get students from out of the region.”

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Wallace Center property

The Wallace Center was the state Department of Mental Health’s first regional developmental center. It opened in 1971 and at its peak in 1975 had 400 residents and 650 employees. The center’s last 40 patients were discharged when it closed in 2003.

Orr thought he had found a use for the property in 2015 when the Alabama National Guard announced it would locate a training facility there.

“We tried the National Guard, and the new general came in with the Ivey administration and she did not see the vision that the Bentley administration general did,” Orr said. “It’s been languishing ever since.”

Orr eventually reached out to John Mascia, director of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), with the idea of it placing a regional center on the campus.

“They really liked the site,” Orr said. “They had engineers look at the buildings. They all have the ability to be reused; in other words you don’t have to tear them down, you can gut them and use them. They have good bones, as one of their engineers said.”

Mascia’s plan is to house multiple programs at the facility once it is rehabilitated.

“The Lurleen Wallace property is perfect for us to develop not only classroom programs but residential programs as well,” Mascia said.

The state funding for the project is $28.5 million.

He said the property will be used for engineering, robotics and cybersecurity programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

One of the projects the institute plans for the facility is a regional center for Washington, D.C.-based Gallaudet University.

“We’re so excited about this,” Mascia said. "Gallaudet University is really the only liberal arts college in the country that serves deaf and hard-of-hearing college students, and for us to be able to develop a Gallaudet regional center as part of the AIDB network is a very, very exciting prospect for us.”

Dennis Gilliam, director of special projects for AIDB, said the Decatur facility would be used for both career-oriented programs for the hearing-impaired and to teach basic living skills for the K-12 visually impaired. 

“What this allows us to do is have some two- to six-week programs that bring in students to a quasi-residential environment where they can learn an expanded core curriculum. That encompasses things like washing clothes, being able to practice good hygiene, good social and emotional behavior, just anything that may not be in the classroom,” Gilliam said. “That expanded core curriculum allows for us to teach them what they need to do if they’re not living at home for the rest of their lives.”

He said the short-term residential programs aimed at students currently in public schools would be on weekends and during the summer.

Gilliam said the Decatur campus will also allow it to expand its partnership with the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Currently, the AIDB’s main residential facilities are in Talladega.

“We’ve been partnering with them for several years on developing a cybersecurity curriculum that will be used for all students, but is really geared toward being accessible for any students that have hearing difference — deaf and hard-of-hearing students,” Gilliam said.

The distance between the residential facility in Talladega and UAH limited AIDB students’ ability to benefit from the program.

“This will allow us to do not only short programs, but long certification processes that would be in that area,” Gilliam said, with the students living at the Decatur campus.

Gilliam said after five to seven years, he expects the campus to have 30 to 40 full-time staff and up to 150 students, although numbers will vary depending on programming.

Orr said the funding for both projects — just two of 20 statewide projects announced Thursday totaling $298.3 million — comes from a premium the state receives when state-issued bonds have a higher yield than bonds on the open market. Because current bond rates are just over 2% and government bonds yield about 5%, the purchasers of those bonds pay a premium for them that is revenue for the state.

"Because the economy has been adversely affected by COVID, having these dollars being poured back into the state in bricks and mortar and construction projects all over the state is a good thing," Orr said. "More locally, for these two Morgan County projects, I’m just grateful to Gov. Ivey for seeing the value and the long-term positive impact that these will have. I think it’s a huge shot in the arm for the area."

The Public School and College Authority, which was responsible for allocating the bond-premium funds, consists of Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

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eric@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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