The Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind expects to have employees at the long-vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Center property in Decatur within two weeks, and renovations to turn the site into a regional campus could start before the end of the year.
The transfer of the property from the National Guard to AIDB is in the final stages. The National Guard had obtained the Wallace Center property on U.S. 31 from the state Department of Mental Health for a training center but no longer needs the site after a change in plans.
AIDB will use the Decatur campus to provide services to the community, partnership programs with colleges and for short-term residential programs — aimed at students currently in public schools — on weekends and during the summer.
Dennis Gilliam is managing on-site programs for AIDB and said the Decatur campus will allow it to expand its partnership with the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The AIDB’s main residential facilities are in Talladega and the distance between that campus and UAH limited AIDB students’ ability to benefit from the partnership.
"It's much easier to help a student or client population if you're nearby," Gilliam said. "So having this center in north Alabama will not only ... serve those in north Alabama more readily but it gives us more staff because we will be able to provide more services."
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored the bill to fund the renovation of the old Wallace Center property and its 17 buildings. The total funding for the project is $28.6 million.
“I think with aid it will be a good community partner, and they’re really excited about growing in this community,” Orr said.
Fifteen of the 17 buildings will require total renovations, but Gilliam said they have good foundations. Gilliam said the funding will cover at least nine of the buildings' renovations, not including the administrative building. The STEM instruction buildings, the Alabama Freedom Center, and four of the residence halls will be renovated during the first phase.
Dr. John Mascia, president of AIDB, said they have already begun meeting with architects and local officials to plan the renovations. They hope to break ground by the end of this calendar year, if not sooner.
The National Guard renovated half of the administrative building, so the AIDB plans to transfer 12-18 employees from Huntsville and Muscle Shoals to that building, some within two weeks and more to follow.
The administrative building will house three different programs: AIDB Decatur Regional Center, Gallaudet University Regional Center, and a STEM education program with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
The AIDB Decatur Regional Center will provide services to the local community such as interpreting, case management, and early intervention services to families of children from birth to 3 years old.
Gallaudet University, based in Washington, D.C., is the only four-year university in the nation for the deaf and hearing impaired. The AIDB will host a regional center for Gallaudet on the new campus to provide a language intervention program for deaf children.
The STEM program in collaboration with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf will show blind people how to utilize technology in the workforce.
The other buildings will be transformed into residence halls, a cafeteria, STEM instruction buildings, and the Alabama Freedom Center.
Eight of the 17 buildings will serve as residence halls for the various programs to be housed on the campus.
Four of the residence halls will have college-style living with individual bedrooms and bathrooms and a shared kitchen. Each of the four will hold 15 students participating in the AIDB's short-term programs and potentially a year-round STEM program in the coming years.
The other four will be independent living, apartment-style dormitories with nine units in each building. These will be used to teach adults independent living skills on the weekends or even for weeks at a time, as needed.
Gilliam said that after five to seven years, he expects the campus to have 50 to 100 full-time staff and up to 150 students, although numbers will vary depending on programming.
Mascia said the AIDB specifically chose Decatur for the additional campus because of the need and sense of community in the region.
According to Mascia, the incidence of hearing and vision loss in north Alabama is higher than the national average. Nationally, the 2019 National Deaf-Blind Child Count report said that just under 80% of children have some type of vision loss, and 20.2% have some hearing loss. Data suggests there are over 70,000 individuals in north Alabama who have hearing and/or vision loss, as many as 500 children birth to age 4 who have hearing loss, and up to 56,000 people ages 65 and older have some vision or hearing and loss.
“We see it as a wonderful opportunity because it's in a beautiful location in a beautiful town and allows us to serve the area,” Gilliam said.
The Wallace Center was the state Department of Mental Health’s first regional developmental center. It opened in 1971 and the center’s last 40 patients were discharged when it closed in 2003. The National Guard announced it would locate a training facility on the property in 2015.