Ready to Roll

By: 
Jul. 7, 2017

Western Michigan University educator Dawn Gaymer's job is to assess opportunities the same way any businessperson weighing a new venture would.

Southwest Florida, Gaymer concluded after an assessment a couple of years ago, offers opportunities to raise the university's profile and add to its offerings — just like WMU's Cooley Law School in Riverview, Hillsborough County, did. Next, she made believers of the board of WMU's Extended University Programs, where Gaymer is associate provost.

The first part of the Southwest Florida venture — the state's first public four-year aviation college — is set for takeoff. And while the College of Aviation carries the Western Michigan University name, once the college leaves WMU's home of Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, it's on its own financially.

“We operate a self-funded business unit,” Gaymer says. “We don't get Michigan state allocations.”

But rewards come for the university if enrollment and revenue meet expectations.

The ventures begin the day after Labor Day, when WMU's College of Aviation opens for business at both Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County and Florida Southwest State College's Punta Gorda campus. Aviation science is part of a mix that is envisioned to include bachelor and master degree programs in health sciences in fall 2018, including training for physician's assistant students.

To start, a couple dozen flight students will train in four of the aviation college's Cirrus SR-20 and SR-22 aircraft out of the airport. They will also receive classroom instruction and training on a $525,000 simulator at Florida Southwest State, two miles away on Airport Road.

WMU expected about 50 students for the first semester that starts Sept. 5, says David Powell, a retired United Airlines captain and flight instructor who took over as dean of the 800-student aviation college.

“We'll probably end up with 25,” Powell says, calling that a “good number” from which to grow. “We're planning to grow to 200 students in four years,” he adds.

Area airport and government officials share the high expectations of Gaymer, Powell and other WMU educators. They've joined with the university to create the WMU Charlotte County Aviation Collective.

“Gary Quill (former Airport Authority director) and I began working with WMU several years ago,” says James Parish, who took over for Quill in September.

Local support includes use of an existing 10,000-square-foot hangar, as well as renovation of a 3,500-square-foot building for flight operations. Charlotte County gave $500,000 for this.

“The budget was allocated and determined based on a positive economic impact analysis of the College of Aviation in Charlotte County,” says Bill Truett, Charlotte County Commission chair, in an email.

WMU, in turn, pledged to provide at least $2 million of capital investment to the local operation and to offer a BA program in aviation science for at least five years.

The Aviation College's arrival also has led Florida Southwest State College to commit to starting programs for airframe and power plant mechanic certificates and degrees at the airport in fall 2018.

All aviation training will eventually be moved into a new general aviation complex that is part of the airport's master plan. Initially, WMU's aviation management school will be housed in Riverview, near Tampa.

The combined efforts will “put our community on the map in the aviation industry,” says Truex, who envisions a pipeline of skilled workers for the aviation sector.

More runway

Powell, the aviation college dean, wanted to create a flight school to offer year-round training. He figured Southwest Florida offered the best locations, especially with the stretch from Tampa to Naples having the nation's third largest concentration of WMU alumni.

Besides year-round sunshine, Powell sought three assets: A college to partner with; a community with an appealing quality of life; and good airport facilities.

Punta Gorda, and the three runways at its airport, topped the list, says Powell. He considered seven Florida communities.

“The main reason for here is to get a new group of students,” he says, and promises lower tuition than Florida's two private four-year aviation colleges, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

Powell says he knew he must partner with people “who honestly wanted us to be here.”

No one wanted WMU here more than Denis Wright, president of Florida Southwest's Punta Gorda campus. “This is like a marriage made in heaven,” Wright says.

Former Boeing flight instructor Jim Williams is the local flight college's director of flight operations and safety. He's been getting things ready at Punta Gorda Airport for most of the past two months. He needs to hire faculty advisers, instructor pilots, maintenance technicians and a dispatcher.

Williams expects delivery of the Level 5 flight simulator to the Florida Southwest campus in July. “It's very high fidelity,” he says of the simulator. “It will simulate conditions for around here and other places.”

The local training will be the same as at WMU's home campus, Williams says. Adds Williams: “The only difference is that the student who comes here gets a tan.”

Next steps

Beyond aviation, with students of WMU's physician's assistant program receiving clinical training at hospitals in the region, setting up a full PA program at Florida Southwest's Punta Gorda campus made sense, says Gaymer, the associate provost for WMU's extended programs.

Gaymer says with accreditation pending, she can't say much about the health science programs planned for 2018, other than the programs will include undergraduate and graduate and will include a physician's assistant program. “We are looking at what curriculum we have that aligns with the needs” of the region, she says.

The idea, Gaymer says, is to create pathways for students to go from freshman to graduate training through the joint programs offered by Florida Southwest and WMU. And Southwest Florida's large senior citizen population makes the PA school an especially good fit. Says Gaymer: “We are looking very carefully at how we can help the community solve problems, how we can improve the lives of people in the community.”

Wright encountered stalled enrollment at the Punta Gorda campus of Florida Southwest when he arrived four years ago. Student numbers had dropped from a high of 2,300 before Hurricane Charley, to around 1,450 students last fall. “We've lost enrollment the last seven years,” he says, citing the departure of people who came to Charlotte County to help rebuild it after 2004's Charley.

The flip side: With the lower enrollment, Wright had plenty of space to accommodate WMU.

The aviation college took over a building with four classrooms and three offices. “They literally took it back to a shell with very few walls left.... The technology is cutting edge,” Wright says.

WMU is covering the costs, he says, and notes: “We can't spend any state money or tuition money.”

Over the next year, Wright expects WMU to build a human anatomy lab for the health sciences program.

The deal couldn't get any better for his college, he says. It reverses an enrolment decline and gets capital improvements at no cost.

Florida Southwest offers bachelor degrees in nursing and business management. With the WMU partnership, look for that to expand in the next decade, Wright says. “Hopefully, in 10 years we'll have 10 (degree) programs. We are limited in what we can deliver. Western Michigan can fill in those voids.”