GONZALES — Upon the conclusion of Thursday's council meeting, it was apparent that the discussion on the fate of Victoria College-Gonzales Center wouldn't be relegated to the confines of that night. The Inquirer was granted access to Gonzales Mayor Connie Kacir and Victoria College-Gonzales Center Manager Jackie Mikesh so that both sides could expand their thoughts on the issue.
Mikesh was joined by Victoria College-Gonzales Center Assistant Manager Vince Ortiz and Kacir submitted written responses and made a visit to this office.
Both women agreed that Gonzales is better off with a higher education facility in town, and both wished to find an agreement to this ordeal.
Mikesh explained the genesis of the center, where a panel of locals was formed to convince Victoria College (VC) to create a campus here. They found a building in an old armory, and the school started in 2007 with a five year plan — with the City of Gonzales — to offer workforce training. In 2008 an auto dealership next door closed and the Gonzales Economic Development Corporation (GEDC) helped purchase and remodel the building for $350,000 to be used as a workforce raining center for VC.
A five year lease was granted to VC by the city for the amount of $1 per year. That lease was renewed in 2012 but expired in 2017 and became a one year lease. Recently, it has been changed to a month-to-month basis.
Kacir said that she is behind the college and its mission of providing its services to the area. She understands the tremendous impact that a college brings to a city, but after 11 years, she believes that it is time for VC to move beyond the initial agreement now that they are established and begin to contribute back to the city in the form of rent.
“The city is simply asking the college to be fair in the partnership by covering their share of the cost to occupy the city’s building,” said Kacir. “Over the past 11 years, the city has only charged the college $1 a year in rent for the buildings and provided them $2 million to acquire an additional campus and renovations as incentives for a college in Gonzales. This was a very generous incentive on behalf of the city.”
She said that the city has been unfairly accused of trying to close the college. The city is the only taxing entity that has incentivized and recruited the college and is only looking for a better lease agreement for its taxpayers, she said.
The lease is the sticking point that both sides point to as the main offender. Kacir says that VC slashed through many of its lease proposals and did not offer any negotiations in return.
“The City of Gonzales has not refused the college a lease, the college has refused to sign or negotiate the lease with the city,” Kacir said. “The city exemplified dedication to VC by offering them a new five year lease in April with an option to renew for two additional five year terms; however, the college refused this offer in May by not agreeing to the terms.”
Mikesh says that the proposals were struck only so that new wordings could be matched up from the city's second interlocal lease with VC. She said she would make it clear what concessions VC intended to make on the lease.
“And we will send it to each council member in the hopes that someone will put it on the [August] agenda,” Mikesh said.
The terms by the city, according to Kacir, included VC accepting financial responsibility for 50 percent of all capital improvements required for the campus, the college paying a $1 per year lease — though she also said that it could be $1,000-1,500 per month depending on what could be negotiated — and having VC evaluate adding new curriculum such as agri-business, oil and gas, and technology. After the terms were rejected by VC, a career firefighter academy was proposed for additional consideration, which was also declined.
When asked why a firefighting academy was considered, Kacir said that it had been mentioned before by the city's fire chief, and she only returned to it because she had exhausted her efforts in looking for additional higher education partners. However, since a fire school requires courses in both training and education, VC would have to sign off on the classroom education part to another provider. VC had originally a firefighting class but dropped it due to it not being financially solvent, and they are not likely to sign over those rights again, both sides said.
Which brings another point: with VC in town, no other higher ed opportunity — other than in-class instruction at the high school — can be realized by the likes of Blinn College, Austin Community College (ACC), or others. State law says that there can be only one. Plus, bringing in another college would likely require an additional tax on residents enacted by the college district, something the likes of ACC already collects. Kacir said that this would allow in-county students to not have to pay the out-of-county fee of $150 that VC imposes on Gonzales County students. She was quick though to distance herself from advocating any tax.
Mikesh though pointed to thousands of dollars in scholarships that VC has gone out for and provided to local students for various work related careers. This helps cut down on those fees.
And Mikesh said that VC President Dr. David Hinds has committed to Gonzales for the foreseeable future, be it in the existing building or another that they would have to find or build if they were forced to leave.
“Victoria College's board, administration, faculty and staff consider it a great honor to serve the Gonzales community and value the longstanding partnership with the City of Gonzales and the GEDC,” Hinds said in a statement. “The college is committed to continuing this partnership — a partnership essential to meeting the higher education goals of the community and ensuring business and industry have the skilled workforce they need.”
Another point of contention are the financials from VC, which Kacir expressed frustration that she was not able to readily obtain. Kacir mentioned being informed that VC-Gonzales Center operated at yearly losses of $400,000-750,000 as a reason why rent payments were not possible. Mikesh on her part provided documents showing local VC expenditures of $1.786 million from 2007-10 and an economic impact study showing over $15 million in economic output pumped into Gonzales over its first decade.
Kacir says she understands that impact, and because of such, says it is time for VC to step up its direct financial output to the city.
“I look at the business model and the overall benefit to the city,” she said. “I looked at the college agreement the same way I looked at contracting our electric utility operations and day-to-day maintenance services; it is applying business acumen to the proposal. Analyzing the data of all possible scenarios to determine the best possible outcome for the city. My oath of office is specific to uphold preserving and protecting the city. I believe if other community colleges are available that provide more educational opportunities than we currently have available with Victoria College, and those providers can also bring a career firefighter academy — and in addition those providers are willing to pay rent for their facilities to benefit the city — I am obligated to look at the opportunities to evaluate the best solution.”
“I have high hopes that the city will be able to come into agreement with the very best opportunity for higher education in Gonzales.”
Mikesh offered the same hope that a deal could soon be struck and that life could get back to business as usual.
“Right now we have a complete fall schedule, courses are scheduled here until June of next year,” Mikesh said. “So it is our hope and our desire to get a lease in place and get this resolved at the August 2018 council meeting so that we can start to plan spring and summer classes.
“We are confident that we are going to resolve this and come to an agreement with the city. We are confident that the city council and the GEDC and the citizens of the community are committed to Victoria College to establish a lease on a partnership that we have had for 11 years. We do not plan to move out of this building unless we have to.”
Editor's note: For the story on the conversation at city council, click here.