New MTI campus sprang 'from 80 acres of nothing'
Greg Von Wald is proud to show off Mitchell Technical Institute.
Starting his sixth school year as president, Von Wald walks around the campus pointing out new lab rooms, the overall spaciousness and the student-friendly atmosphere.
Most of all, Von Wald is happy about one thing.
"It's all located right here," he said of the campus, now fully situated south of Interstate 90 in the southeast corner of Mitchell.
The current school year is the first time ever that MTI hasn't suffered from a split identity. The school began its life in 1968 at a main location across from Mitchell High School, in the heart of the city, but some students were forced to take classes at other locations beyond the main building.
In 2001, ground was broken on a new MTI building south of Interstate 90 -- about 2.5 miles from the original campus. It was the first development in a massive moving process that spanned 12 years and saw the construction of six buildings at a total cost of $46.4 million. The final puzzle piece is the Trades Center, which was completed this fall and will be celebrated with an open house at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The old campus' structures were 120,000 square feet on eight acres of land. The new campus includes 300,000 square feet of facilities on 80 acres.
"When people talk about how long it takes for something to come to fruition, many folks don't understand exactly how long it takes," said Chris Paustian, of Mitchell, who was MTI's president from 1985 until retiring in June 2008. "It takes a long time and that's only because we had some people willing to step forward within the community, a good school board and great staff members."
Between 1998 and 1999, MTI piggybacked on a citywide project called Vision 2000, which brought together committee members during the early 1990s to dream up projects to expand and enhance Mitchell, with many of the projects ultimately coming to fruition.
MTI called its project Vision 2020, with a goal of increasing its enrollment from about 850 students to 1,200 students (the goal has been achieved, with 1,227 students this fall).
While sitting on eight acres of land across from the high school and using a building that was too small, the school's future growth was limited.
"We figured out we needed a task force to really sit down and focus on where we can take this institution, which at that point was 35 years old," said MTI Director of Marketing and Public Information Julie Brookbank, a Mitchell native who's worked at the school for 22 years. "It had aging infrastructure, we were landlocked on that property and we had no room to grow."
In the summer of 2000, MTI released a report to the community showing a need for a new campus in a highly visible part of town. Two spots were named the best possible locations, along Interstate 90 or the near the Highway 37 bypass.
The spot available near I-90 was a cattle pasture owned by a local family. Doug, Lenny and Denny Ellwein and Brenda (Ellwein) Gignac offered 80 acres of land at $520,000, or $6,500 per acre.
"We could have held onto it and sold it for a lot more," Doug Ellwein said. "But we're proud that we were a part of this development. We're very happy to see it grow and prosper."
The initial plan to relocate and expand the school in 1998 estimated the total cost to be about $20 million, but it ended up more than double that amount at $46.4 million.
The goal of being more visible has unquestionably been met. In 2012, the average traffic count at Mitchell's I-90 Exit 332 was 9,960 vehicles per day, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation. That totals about 3.6 million vehicles per year driving by MTI's new campus.
"I think consolidating the school in one location helps solidify their presence and enhances the whole atmosphere of the campus," Mitchell Mayor Ken Tracy said. "It's a great move and the fact that it's along the interstate, it has great visibility. They're on the right track and I think they have a very bright future."
Putting the pieces together
Paustian remembers the day the new campus broke ground.
"It was Aug. 10, 2001," Paustian said. "I have a picture of me and (Mitchell School District Superintendent) Joe Graves and we were at a big, empty piece of grassland. It was 80 acres of nothing."
The funding of the new campus came mainly through bonds from the South Dakota Health and Educational Facilities Authority, which, among many other things, assists in the financing of capital improvements for vocational education.
Since 2008, MTI has received $36 milllion in bonds for project funds from the authority for the construction of the new campus. Because of debt on the old campus and various fees, MTI has a total debt of about $38.7 million from the bonds. The debt will be paid off over a 30-year period with facility fees paid by students, based on the number of credits they take.
Mitchell-based Puetz Corp. was the architect and construction manager for much of the new campus, having a hand in all four buildings that have classrooms.
The first building constructed on what was originally called the south campus was the Technology Center, which is now the westernmost building and hosts students in programs such as satellite communications, accounting and business management. It was completed in November 2002 and cost $4.4 million. About two months later, the new campus' first MTI classes were taught there.
The Technology Center was expanded and the Energy Training Center was built for a combined cost of $6 million in 2009. Today, the Energy Training Center hosts four programs and is the building located furthest east on the campus.
The first of two apartment complexes was built in 2010. It has 45 units and is a combination of efficiencies -- small apartments that usually combine a living room, a bedroom and kitchen in one room and have a separate bathroom -- and two- and four-bedroom units.
State law says tech schools cannot build student dormitories on campus, but other technical institutes have sidestepped that requirement by transferring pieces of campus land to private ownership.
MTI deeded a plot of land to the private, nonprofit MTI Foundation. That organization leases the land to Puetz Development, which built and operates the student housing facilities.
"They went and built the apartments, they own them, rent them and do everything for them," Von Wald said. "It's completely out of our hands."
The second apartment complex, which has 57 units with efficiencies and two-bedrooms, was completed to begin this school year, opening in August.
Combined, the cost of construction for both apartment projects was $7 million.
The final two pieces of the new campus started to take shape in May 2010 with the Campus Center, which is host to general education courses, the Culinary Academy and several medical divisions. The Campus Center was completed in 2011, costing $10.5 million. The striking building is the campus' centerpiece.
"It's for people interested in coming here, and it pulls you in," Von Wald said. "It's the only three-story building we have on campus."
On Tuesday, the public is invited to see the Trades Center, a 150,000-square-foot, two-story building that houses nine programs. There will be a press conference at 3:30 p.m. in the Lecture Hall where a new fundraising initiative by the MTI Foundation will be announced.
After the announcement, there will be an open house event at 4 p.m., with a ribbon-cutting event at 4:30 p.m. Anyone is welcome to view the $18.5 million, northernmost building on the campus.
Although Von Wald said there's nothing in the works now, he said further expansion is always possible.
When Von Wald first arrived to take over as president of MTI in 2008, the school actually had three campuses spread throughout Mitchell.
"We had our engineering division over here at the Technology Center, we had power line and gas programs over in the old Mitchell Motors business building over on the west side of town and then we had the rest of the institute across from the high school on Capital Street," Von Wald said. "It was very difficult to serve all of your students equally when you have to serve them in three different areas."
When the campus was split, students were forced to drive to different locations around town for their courses. Von Wald said students felt separated from their classmates and enrollment consequently dwindled.
The school had 844 students in the fall of 1998, the same year relocation was envisioned by a community study group. By the fall of 2008, while students were forced to commute around town for class, enrollment had dropped to 757.
This fall, MTI's enrollment is at an all-time high of 1,227 students. Von Wald gives part of the credit to the new, consolidated campus. Away from the new campus, one class of welding is still held at the Capital Street site. It meets two days a week, two hours each day.
Brookbank said there are a few other classes taught at other sites, but nearly all MTI students stay at the new campus for their course work.
More Mitchell High School students have started choosing MTI, too, which hasn't always been the case, Brookbank said.
"Kids just didn't want to go to the old building," she said. "It had a negative connotation, it was right across the street from the high school and they didn't feel like they were changing anything in their lives.
The Class of 2013 at Mitchell High School's first choice for post-secondary education was Mitchell Tech, defeating South Dakota State University for the first time.
"We know it's because of the facilities and it's away from the high school," Brookbank said.
Since nearly all classes have moved to the new campus along the interstate, the food service meal count at the Campus Center has increased 60 percent from last year to this year, jumping from 250 meals per day to about 400 meals per day. Brookbank said breakfast, snack and drink sales have also increased and the total number of transactions and total revenue in the food service have doubled.
"When we're all together, you can really feel it this year," Von Wald said. "The social aspects of the students have really taken off."
'Why we have the growth'
Jared Roethler, 20, is in his second and final year at MTI.
Originally from Cherokee, Iowa, Roethler chose the school to avoid a four-year university and go after the degree he wanted.
While last year the majority of his classes were held on the old campus along Capital Street, this year four of Roethler's seven classes are in the new Trades Center building.
"Labs were crowded and clustered all the time last year," said Roethler, who is in the Power Sports Technology program. "Before, it was motorcycles, ATVs, lawn mowers all in the same labs. Now we all have different labs and there's a lot more room. It's a lot more student-friendly."
Von Wald is proud of that. He boasts of the school's 98 percent workforce placement percentage and its lower tuition than four-year universities.
At MTI, most programs cost about $12,000 to $14,000 total for two years.
"There's a huge demand and growing demand in technically trained and occupationally trained workers," Von Wald said. "That's why we have the growth."
Von Wald expects enrollment to stay high at MTI. The old campus on Capital Street across from the high school has become the Mitchell School District's Career and Technical Education Academy, which the district uses to teach high school classes. High school students who take some courses, such as welding, also receive college credits but don't have to pay like most college students.
For the president who took over MTI about five years ago and has watched it grow, it's satisfying to see a feeling of community blooming on the new campus.
"In a two-year school, when you don't have ball teams and don't have dormitories, it's very hard to create the college atmosphere," Von Wald said. "That's kind of what this campus has now allowed us to do."