An artist's rendering shows planned dormitories for the Alabama Center for the Arts that will be built with $15 million in state funding. [COURTESY ILLUSTRATION]

A state bond premium fund will finance downtown Decatur dormitories for the Alabama Center for the Arts and a regional center for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to be located at the vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Center on U.S. 31, Gov. Kay Ivey announced today.

The $15 million dormitories will be located on Johnston Street Southeast, across from Carriage House.

The $28.5 million renovations of the Wallace Center will house numerous educational and training programs for the deaf and blind.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored the legislation that is providing the funding. It was one of three bills that passed in the COVID-shortened legislative session this year; the other two were the education and General Fund budgets. The bill essentially allowed premiums received on the sale of state-issued bonds to be distributed for projects as determined by the Public School and College Authority.

Orr said he began working on the dormitory project two years ago after speaking with art department chairs at Calhoun Community College and Athens State University, partners in the Alabama Center for the Arts on Second Avenue in downtown Decatur.

"I said, 'What else do you need?' They both said they need student housing. They have a problem with students being able to find decent-priced housing to be able to move here and go to school here," Orr said.

He said plans are still in the early stages, but he expects the dorms to be in a three- to four-story building and house 70-100 students. He expects the dorms to be ready to house students by August 2022.

John Mascia, president of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, said the regional center to be located on the Wallace Center property will include short-term residential facilities for students for intensive training, as well as several statewide programs aimed at developing career skills.

"The Lurleen Wallace property is perfect for us to develop not only classroom programs but residential programs as well," Mascia said. "This property will help us in developing engineering, robotics and cybersecurity programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing students."

Dennis Gilliam, special projects director for the institute, said the Decatur facility will eventually employ 30-40 faculty. He said the number of students will vary depending on programs that are in session, but will range from 20 to 150.

Orr said the legislation he passed this year was aimed in part at stimulating an economy that has faltered since the pandemic began.

"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," he 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 authority that was responsible for distributing the funds consists of Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

The authority today announced the distribution of $298,317,492 in bond premium funds for 20 different projects throughout the state, including $8 million to the AIDT for workforce training at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA in Limestone County.

Read more in Friday's edition of The Decatur Daily.

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