Campus in struggling county faces threat of closure again

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ALLENDALE, S.C. --- The faded past of this county with South Carolina's highest unemployment rate is reflected in the derelict remains of motels and restaurants lining U.S. 301, once a main route to Florida from the Northeast.

Now, many see the future quickly fading as well.

A proposal by Gov. Mark Sanford would shutter the campus of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, which for more than four decades has provided students in this poverty-stricken corner of the state a chance at higher education. Along the way, advocates say the school has become more and more important to the region.

"I think in a lot of ways a lot of people have written Allendale off," says the Rev. Carol Holladay, who for 12 years has served as associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Allendale. Closing the campus would be "cutting off any opportunity for Allendale to come out of poverty. They are just limiting the amount we can change."

In South Carolina, which has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation, Allendale is ground zero for economic turmoil. Jobless rates have been in the double digits, hitting 19.7 percent in December. Mortgage foreclosure rates are the highest in the state. A textile plant shut down about 14 months ago and two others in neighboring Barnwell County will close by June, robbing the area of hundreds more jobs.

When the Allendale campus opened in 1965, four-lane U.S. 301 carried as many as 17 million travelers past the motels and restaurants in the town. After Interstate 95 was built to the east, the traffic disappeared, and, like the motels, the area's economy began to fall into disrepair. The school renovated an old Howard Johnson's restaurant for a student services center.

For the third time in six years, Mr. Sanford has proposed shuttering the Allendale campus. He has also proposed closing USC branch campuses in Union and Lancaster to save $2.4 million in a year.

The previous attempts stalled in the Legislature, but this time, lawmakers say they worry the state's finances are more dire. Since July, state spending has been cut by $1 billion -- bringing furloughs for state workers and cutting services.

"These are less-than-ideal choices," said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer. "No matter what you do it's unpalatable -- do you close regional campuses or do you start kicking people off Medicaid and closing prisons?"

The Sanford administration says Salkehatchie students could attend USC branch campuses in Aiken or Beaufort.

Local lawmakers say they will redouble efforts to keep Salkehatchie open.

State Sen. Brad Hutto said there is no question lawmakers must deal with a tight budget.

"I'm not saying that Salkehatchie or Union or Lancaster or the main campus shouldn't be cut," said Mr. Hutto, D-Orangeburg. "But there is a difference between taking your fair share of cuts and being eliminated."

SALKEHATCHIE CAMPUS FACTS

- Salkehatchie opened in 1965 in Allendale. The campus is now known as the "West Campus" after a second campus opened in Walterboro in the 1980s.

- Salkehatchie has nearly 1,000 students, about half of them full time. Tuition is about $2,500 a semester compared to about $4,200 at the university's main campus in Columbia.

- About 62 percent of the students who enroll complete their two-year course of study with either an associate degree or by transferring to a four-year campus.

- Students can now earn four-year degrees in nursing or education, which are the two most popular majors, from the University of South Carolina and complete all their course work at Salkehatchie.

Sources: South Carolina Employment Security Commission, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Census Bureau, University of South Carolina.


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