COLUMBIA — Punching into the skyline at Midlands Technical College’s Beltline Boulevard campus is a 43,000-square-foot brick-and-glass sign of progress.
The school opened its $14.5 million Learning Resource Center four years ago, doubling the footprint of a campus library in use since 1967, when gas cost 32 cents a gallon and Robert McNair was serving his first term as governor.
It was a transformative event, continuing an era of historic capital investments to modernize the 8,800-student school.
Since 2015, Midlands Tech has devoted more than $50 million on building projects across its campuses. Nearly all the spending has taken place at its two largest footprints, the Beltline campus and Airport location situated on 65 acres in West Columbia.
“A college like ours, you have to figure out how to remain relevant and current,” Midlands Tech President Ronald Rhames said. “The technology, what we teach, the way we teach is constantly changing, and so if you don’t make those kinds of investments, you really can’t call yourself a technical college. And so the facilities you see coming online are designed to meet today’s needs.”
Midlands Tech pulls most of its students from Richland, Lexington and Fairfield counties and is the state’s third-largest tech school. Its service area is home to major manufacturers such as Amazon, BHI Energy and Charter Communications that employ thousands around the region.
The latest construction venture, which won approval earlier February from Columbia’s Planning Commission, is a $30 million replacement of the 53-year-old Lindau Engineering Technology Building on the same campus where officials built the resource center. It’s slated to open in the spring of 2024, phasing out a pair of half-century old structures with limited space.
“The people that are hiring our graduates are looking for a skill set that is different each day, and so our graduates are going to be competitive as anybody in the world,” said Rhames, who graduated from Midlands Tech in 1978.
Columbia Chamber of Commerce president Carl Blackstone said the expansion work at Midlands Tech will have benefits off campus as well.
“The technical colleges in the next few decades are going to be pivotal for job growth in this market, so being adaptive and being able to train a different kind of workforce than we’ve ever seen is going to be critical,” he said. “They’re going to be in great demand.”
Midlands Tech has nearly $63 million set aside for capital improvement work — money that comes from bonds and financial support from local, state and federal resources.
The building boom will bring to West Columbia’s campus a $4.5 million industrial technology facility in May that boasts 64 welding stations to meet industry demand. It follows a $5 million renovation of the Airport campus’ advanced manufacturing center, which went online in 2016.
Midlands Technical College Commission member Robert Lentz said all the activity positions the school to thrive in a post-COVID economy.
“This is a big story. We are on the cutting edge of where the technology is, we are on the cutting edge of where the jobs are,” Lentz said. “The (state Department of Commerce) is looking at us, the governor is looking at us to train these new employees for these businesses.”
Brian Symmes, a spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster, said the state’s technical colleges are the workhorses of South Carolina’s economy, depended on to create a pipeline of skilled workers for companies that continue to invest.
That’s why strategic construction plans like Midlands Tech’s are so crucial.
“Our technical colleges are improving every single year not only in training South Carolina’s future workforce, but also streamlining that process for the jobs that are actually available,” Symmes said. “For too long in South Carolina, we’ve had jobs available looking for people.”
Rhames likes to recall the reason he first enrolled at Midlands Tech. It was the mid-1970s and he was working at a fast-food restaurant near the Beltline campus when he and several friends decided that taking courses there would be a good way to meet girls.
The college ended up being an indelible part of Rhames’ life, and he became its president in 2015. Presiding over such a thriving time in his history, he said, was something he never imagined being a part of.
“It looked a lot different than it does today and it will tomorrow, and I never thought I would be sitting here,” Rhames said. “A lot of people take advantage of us. But they don’t know the breadth and reach and the impact on lives we have in this community.”
Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.