Dual opportunities — more space and a more visible presence in the community — came together to form one excellent reason to move Laurel Technical Institute’s Meadville campus from one historic structure to another. In the end, the fact that their original home was pretty much sold out from under them just added icing to the cake.

“The school is growing,” Doug Decker, executive director for LTI’s Meadville campus, said Monday. “We needed expanded lab space, especially for the medical programs, cosmetology and the information technology program. We needed more square feet than we had at Talon.”

The 13,000 square feet the school occupied in the massive structure at the top of Arch Street formerly known as Talon Plant 5 increased to approximately 20,000 feet following a move to Parkside Commons, the historic structure at the northern end of Diamond Park formerly known as “the old junior high.”

After starting the 2011 school year in its new location, LTI is gearing up for dual celebrations.

The family-owned school that got its start in Uniontown on Nov. 4, 1985, is marking the beginning of a new phase in its involvement with the Meadville community. Thursday — one day before formally celebrating its 26th anniversary — the school, assisted by Meadville-Western Crawford County Chamber of Commerce, will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony from 3 to 6 p.m. The actual cutting of the ribbon is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.

On Nov. 16 from 4 to 7 p.m., the public is invited to an open house at the facility, which is entered through the large doors facing the Diamond. The event will feature tours and discussions about topics including programs and financial aid, Acting Director Pat Campbell said Monday.

The school now known as LTI got its start back in 1985, when Christopher Decker, vice president of human resources for a small bank in Uniontown, found that he couldn’t find qualified people to hire. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Christopher and his wife, Nancy, opened a school they called Laurel Business Institute.

Involved with the family business since he was about 2, their son Doug has seen LBI grow from its Uniontown roots to include Laurel Technical Institute campuses in both Sharon and Meadville. While Christopher has passed on, Nancy serves as president of the organization.

In September 2007, the Decker family purchased Business Institute of Pennsylvania, founded in 1926 and purchased in 1977 by Richard and Patricia McMahon. When the Deckers purchased BIP, it was already located in the Talon facility. In March 2008, the new owners re-named the school Laurel Technical Institute.

“We want people to know how committed we are to Meadville — how much we believe in the town and the surrounding communities,” Doug Decker said. “We want to be here for a long time — and be a partner in many facets of the community. Primarily in education, but in a lot of other ways as well.”

At the current time, he continued, they’re working with a lot of community groups like Junior Achievement and the READ program. “We do some things with the school district — we want to keep growing that. We want to find a niche with our associate degree programs that meet a need in the community. ... We want to find a program area that’s poised for growth and that are appropriate for us to do. Medical is a good one and we’ve just started early childhood education. We feel that these are program areas that aren’t already here — and that there’s a sustainable job market for them. Part of building collaboration with the community is seeing what’s already here and not duplicating services.”

They’re also dedicated to their students. “We are constantly evaluating where we are with our graduate placement rates and making sure that they’re able to seek sustainable employment — with a family-sustainable wage — after they graduate,” Decker continued. Their placement rate has risen about 15 percent during the past two to three years. “We’re at 78.5 percent placement. Our retention rate is about 71 to 72 percent. We’re very happy with that, but we’d like to see 100 percent.”

With a student body ranging in age and experience from fresh high school graduate to experienced worker — their oldest graduate to date received her diploma at the age of 62 — “the school awards specialized associate degrees in business or technology, as opposed to the academic associate degrees you’d get at a community college,” Doug said. Their programs, he added, “are designed for the student to finish in 18 months or less and have a tangible skill set in a particular field of study and to be prepared to do that job in the workforce.”

A total of 99 students are currently enrolled; the estimated capacity of the new facility is approximately 150.

A major change

As Decker sees it, the move downtown made perfect sense.

“Philosophically, each one of our locations is in a downtown area,” he explained. “We believe heavily in supporting downtown redevelopment. We just kind of feel good about being in the center of things and part of the community, helping it move forward.

“Personally, I think it’s just really neat to have something that gives new use to something that’s kind of a pillar of the community instead of just knocking it down and going in other directions,” he added. “You’re actually taking creative space that’s just so well constructed — we’re just excited to be part of that.”

Anyone who remembers the auditorium that once served students as Meadville High School and then as Meadville Junior High will immediately recognize the carefully-restored ceiling over the school’s administration area. The stage of the auditorium is also instantly recognizable, although it now serves as a common area for the entire building.

“It’s amazing what the contractors were able to do,” he said. “The crown molding you see was water damaged as the result of leaky roofs. They recast so much of that beautiful work — it looks like it looked the day it was put in.”

According to developer Tom Kennedy of Professional Development Co., who took on the project back when Crawford Central School Board was desperately seeking a buyer for the aging building and whose company now owns and manages the mixed-use facility that combines residential, non-profit and commercial tenants, there’s a good reason for the success of the end result.

“We worked with the historical nature of the building,” Kennedy said Monday. “It was a group design effort — Laurel was involved from when it was a pile of rubble. It was designed to meet their needs while respecting the building.”

When LTI moved in, the Parkside Commons project was essentially complete. “When I look at the project, I think it’s really come out better than I ever expected,” Kennedy said. “The only challenge is how long it took to get it done. It took some stick-to-itness. It’s more than five years, which, for a development project, is way too long.”

Although it was his first project in the Meadville area, the Erie-based developer said Monday that it won’t be his last. In fact, they’ve recently reached agreement to build a small building in the Meadville area. Although he isn’t quite ready to disclose any additional details, Kennedy promised to keep the community posted.

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com.

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