Retired ag instructor, others question proposed ATEC changes

Future drives proposed additions to facility, EWC president says

TORRINGTON – Talk of altering the terms of a grant to help fund the proposed Agricultural Technology Education Center at Eastern Wyoming College here has some who were intimately involved with the planning concerned.

Sharing space in the proposed Agricultural Technology Education Center will enhance opportunities for students, according to Eastern Wyoming College President Lesley Travers. She believes that altering plans for the 23,000 square foot facility will still allow sufficient space for agriculture instruction, along with her proposed inclusion of the Veterinary Technology program.

But the news there was talk of modifying the current plans came as a shock to some of those who’d work for six years to provide a state-of-the-art facility for what is arguably one of the state’s top agriculture education programs.

The issue arose after Travers proposed changes to the agriculture-focused addition to the EWC campus prior to the Sept. 12 board of trustees meeting. Rick Vonburg, retired EWC instructor in the Ag program, voiced his concerns with the proposed changes.

Vonburg openly questioned the Trustees on the wisdom of changing plans that had taken six years to develop in order to acquire an Economic Development Administration grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce, as well as county voter approval for a $6.4 million obligation bond. 

“Suddenly, we learned that changes were being made to the plans,” said Vonburg, who retired in 2016 after 43 years as an agriculture, economics and statistics instructor at the college. “This was after input from several specialists in the various fields, and even Temple Grandin offered to look at the plans.” 

Upon her arrival at EWC, President Lesley Travers proposed the design adjustments to the board of trustees in order to create additional classroom space for students in the popular Vet Tech program. Among other changes, two wet labs and cooler space for samples will be turned into instruction space. Other areas will be modified to make room for office space for

The formal proposal was on the Sept. 12 meeting agenda for approval by the trustees.

The idea for a facility dedicated solely to agriculture education was many years in the making, Vonberg said. Early planning involved many community sectors, all with a stake in maintaining and growing the program in eastern Wyoming.

“Ag didn’t have dedicated classrooms, or livestock handling facilities,” Vonburg said. “We relied on the graciousness of local producers who let us use their animals. Those sharing producers saved the
ag program.”

Then, about 10 years ago, the program’s advisory committee, consisting of community business people and producers, encouraged the pursuit of a livestock barn. This was accomplished, as well as early plans for ATEC.

“It was embarrassing,” Vonburg said of the situation. “Other colleges had facilities. But it was exciting to think about what we could do with a facility where we had labs and could have demonstrations.”

Vonburg said focus groups were organized and spent four months gathering information on the potential for an ag facility. Livestock producers, bankers, students and others in the community were contacted for input about what a facility should provide.

“It was a big thing,” Vonburg recalled. “But we ran into problems because the construction plans called for an “arena” instead of a demonstration area. At that time, too many rodeo programs had obtained funding for their arenas and the Community College Commission and Legislature were not in the mood to finance another one, even though it was really a demonstration area.”

So it was back to planning. 

The new proposal would be a home for cosmetology, welding, machine tooling and health sciences. That facility, the Career and Technical Education Center, was dedicated last month.

This time, the Wyoming Legislature gave $20 million to the project, on the condition that the community raise the additional $3.3 million. This was accomplished through a general obligation bond for $6.4 million. The other $3.1 million was seed money for a new Agricultural Technology Education Center.

“People in agriculture, staff, students. We all visited homes, talked to organizations, and even explained its importance at SAREC (University of Wyoming Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Lingle). Vet Tech was never in the proposal.

“We worked out tails off,” Vonburg said of the joint effort. “And the bond passed. We were set to
begin ATEC.”

Travers said she proposed the changes after reading the Economic Development Administration’s grant for $1.5 million. A request to include the Vet Tech program is being considered now by the EDA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“This is a chance to see the (Agriculture and Veterinary Technology) departments grow,” Travers said. “Whatever we build, we are stuck with for nine years. The grant says we can’t include another program during those first nine years. It would be only for the ag department.”

The wording of the current grant limits use of the facility, she said. Those limits could effectively lock out Vet Tech or any other program from moving to ATEC, even though they’re in need of space and facilities. Travers said there is also a question of what job “placement” means. The grant is to be used to train students for jobs, but Travers said there is some question whether returning to work on the family farm/ranch is really a placement. 

Travers has proposed converting some spaces in the original plans to classroom and office space to accommodate the 70-plus Vet Tech students, and some of their technical class needs. She believes the changes will not have a negative impact on the educational opportunities of the more than 70 Ag program students.

She said the demonstration area will remain for the livestock program, even though two wet labs and a cooler will be eliminated. Some Vet Tech operations would continue in the current building as the transition is made during the next few years. 

Travers refers to the new arrangement as having the two programs, which currently are under two separate divisions, Vet Tech as a stand-alone, and Ag in the Ag Division with Welding and Business, under one umbrella, not combined.

“In other institutions, Agriculture and Vet Tech are together,” she said. “I looked at the Vet Tech facilities and they are older and chopped up, so I asked the board why, and they said, ‘That’s a good question.’”

The amended grant has not been finalized, but Travers believes the approval of the proposed changes would cause no more than a  month’s delay in starting construction in the spring of 2018. The facility, located on the North Campus across West C Street from the main campus, would be ready for students in the fall of 2019.

“We need to ensure that everyone gets what they need, not what they dream. We can’t afford that,” Travers said. “There’s no reason they can’t share. They are both deserving.

“Ag won’t lose anything,” Travers promised. “There is room for 10 instructor and adjunct spaces, as well as labs and classes. We’d have to have three times the enrollment to use all the space all of the time, which would be nice.”

EWC expects an answer to its request to alter the terms of the original grant request by Oct. 11.

“Initially, we were locked in to Ag for nine years,” Travers added. “This change opened the door for Vet Tech classes, which initially will be only a few.”

She added that in the beginning, the same equipment will be used, and an inventory will be done to evaluate what will be needed in the future. She said there will be no changes to the footprint of the building. The only changes will be inside. 

“It’s not real extravagant,” Travers said of the proposed ATEC building. “It will be a nice building for two great programs. Sensible and realistic. A wonderful addition to the campus.”


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