Casper College and the University of Wyoming have had a productive partnership for 36 years, but a project under construction here is taking it to a new level that should significantly benefit local students.

Officials of both institutions broke ground Monday on the combined student union and UW/CC Center, a 95,000-square-foot building that will cost $32 million. A separate ceremony was held for the new Music Building, another important addition to the campus.

In order for the UW/CC program to have room to grow, it clearly needed its own space. All of its courses will now be able to be offered under one roof, instead of splitting them between the Outreach Building on North Poplar Street and the main campus, which is about two miles away.

Beginning in 1976, UW/CC had 60 students and three degree programs. Today there are 350 students who can choose myriad degree programs — 16 undergraduate and 13 graduate.

The program benefits both UW and Casper College — through expanded enrollments — as well as the community. By offering local residents an opportunity to obtain a bachelor or masters degree without leaving Casper, students don’t have to leave jobs or uproot families to relocate in Laramie to continue their education.

At the ground-breaking ceremony, UW/CC social work student Liz Davis shared her experience. She said the program allowed her to raise her son near her family while continuing to be employed and attend school.

Davis said the new center will give students more time to spend with their families or doing schoolwork instead of spending it commuting.

The UW/CC portion will feature classrooms and faculty offices. The student union will include a bookstore and convenience store, dining services, student life offices, a student lounge and a student wellness center.

There are a few important lessons learned from this expansion. First, this addition and the UW/CC partnership demonstrates that there’s more than just energy companies growing in Wyoming. Education is also important.

If you don’t believe it, look at the recent call for more nurses as well as a constant demand for high quality teachers. This allows the programming to continue to grow in Casper. Education helps drive our local economy. It adds jobs for years to come not only with the instructors and professors, but by ensuring a robust, well educated work force.

And forgive our mixing metaphors: But there’s also been a learning curve in which we’ve emphasized the need to consider and use local, Wyoming contractors for construction projects that will leave such a legacy here.

Natrona County voters showed their support for expanding the campus by overwhelmingly approving a $35 million bond issue in 2008 despite a downturn in the economy. In addition to the student union and UW/CC Center and the Music Building, the bond issue also helped fund the Gateway Building, which was completed last year.

Under the agreement, the UW/CC Center building will be leased to the university for 50 years.

Gov. Matt Mead noted that the UW/CC Center is more than just a building. “It is symbolic of the partnerships that can be formed, and it’s symbolic of what this community and the state of Wyoming can get done when working in cooperation,” he said.

Periodically, some local residents have called for building a four-year university in Casper. This project shows that both UW and Casper College did the right thing decades ago by forming a partnership and building on it as time and money permitted.

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