It’s official: the ambitious plans of the Community and Technical College Foundation of Ashland to turn the upper floors of the old C.H. Parsons Co. department store into a conference and community education center and a home for the school’s nursing program have been nixed. The foundation is putting the six-story building on the market.
One can’t blame the foundation for abandoning plans to develop the large structure at 1620 Winchester Ave. Funding for higher education in Kentucky remains flat and the chances of ACTC securing state funding for the renovation of the building were extremely long.
One can also question whether the college really needed the space for classrooms or a conference center. Since plans for the Parsons building were first unveiled, ACTC has developed its beautiful new Technology Drive campus about 20 miles from Ashland in EastPark and moved many of its programs to that campus.
If the college needs additional space for classes and other programs, it has abundant room at its Roberts Drive campus. It does not appear the plan to create a magnet school that would attract the top high school students from Boyd, Greenup, Carter, Lawrence and Elliott counties on the Robert Drive campus are going to be realized, leaving the former home of the Ashland Area Vocational Technical School greatly underused. Finding new uses for that campus is a greater priority than renovating the Parsons building.
The Highlands Museum and Discovery Center occupies the basement and first two floors of the Parsons building, and it has no plans of moving. Nor should it. We think the museum is one of the best kept secrets in this region.
Bob Maher, president of the Community and Technical College Foundation of Ashland, and Ashland Community and Technical College Dean of Resource Development and External Affairs Larry Ferguson said they were hopeful the museum’s directors will buy the building. That would certainly be the best option, but we are uncertain the museum has the financial ability to buy the building, which the foundation hopes to sell for $600,000.
The demise of ACTC’s plans to move college classes into the Parsons building marks the second time our hopes that having college students regularly attend classes downtown would help revitalize the central business district have fizzled.
When Morehead State University began offering classes on two floors of the G.B. Johnson Building — the former headquarters of Ashland Oil at th corner of 14th Street and Winchester Avenue — we had hopes the MSU campus would attract hundreds of students downtown who would patronize nearby businesses. But our hopes for great economic benefits from the downtown campus were never realized, in part because many of the MSU classes were in the evening when more stores downtown are closed.
MSU eventually abandoned the Johnson building and began offering upper-level college classes on ACTC’s College Drive campus. That has proven to be an arrangement mutually beneficial to MSU and the community college. Morehead is one of several four-year schools that offer enough classes on the ACTC campus to allow students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in some programs without leaving Ashland.
Although MSU’s presence downtown failed to do much to revitalize the area, we had hopes the presence of ACTC’s nursing students downtown would have a greater impact that MSU’s students did. After all, the nursing students would at least be attending class during the day. But it is not to be, and another ambitious plan to revitalize downtown Ashland has bit the dust. Don’t blame the community college. Its mission is education, not economic development.
From a practical standpoint, the announcement that the foundation hopes to sell the building does not change much of anything. It means the Parsons building will remain much like it has been since soon after the department store closed, with the museum on the lower floors and the upper floors vacant. Unfortunately, it is hardly the only downtown building mostly vacant.
Our hope is a viable use eventually will be found for the upper floors, not only of the Parsons building, but of other downtown buildings. In the meantime, we have no choice but to be patient and to hope.