NEWTON, NJ — The Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting on Wednesday was standing room only with people spilling out to the hall. The crowd was drawn to the meeting because of anticipated discussion of the Sussex County Community College’s plans to convert the McGuire property on the Newton green to a downtown campus.

The meeting began, however, with the Freeholders tabling the three resolutions pertaining to the issue. The public still got to have their say. For more than two and a quarter hours people went to the microphone to voice their opinion about the initiative, according to SCCC President Dr. Jon Connelly.

Connelly said the Freeholders “could not have been more gracious,” in allowing the public to speak, despite the topic being removed from the agenda. 

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“The Freeholders were terrific and attentive,” Connelly said. “Honestly they wanted to hear from everyone, even though they didn’t have to.”

Freeholder Director Jonathan Rose said a follow up meeting has been scheduled for September 20 at 9 a.m. at the McNeice Auditorium at Sussex County Technical School. The public meeting will include a quorum of the Freeholder Board, SCCC board of trustees, Newton Town Council and the Sussex County Tech’s Board of Education and will have a public comment period, according to Rose.

The meeting is to “flesh out items,” that had been discussed at the Freeholders meeting on August 8. Rose said the September 20 meeting will be “geared toward getting all stakeholders together.” He said there will likely be an additional meeting in the future at a time more convenient for the public.

Before the meeting Newton Town Councilwoman Sandra Diglio sent a statement to TAPinto Newton.

“I am totally in favor of the SCCC/McGuire Project,” Diglio said. “As you are aware the Planning Board conducted a public hearing on July 18, 2018 regarding this matter and determined the proposal was consistent with the goals and objectives of the Town of Newton Master Plan and the Redevelopment Plan for the McGuire Redevelopment Area. The Board also urged the representatives of the Town and College to continue to meet and work toward implementing further development of the site. I believe this is a win win for the town and college.”

The resolutions initially on the agenda for Wednesday night were to change the language of the bond ordinances that had been previously been approved by the Sussex County Board of School Estimates and SCCC board of trustees to include the specific wording about purchasing the McGuire property. The Sussex County Board of School Estimates passed a resolution at their March 27 meeting, upholding the funding for the initiative that would bring so-called middle skills gap programs to SCCC.

The downtown campus would include automotive repair, welding and machining in the back of the property with a culinary program and café in the front. This plan was supported by all but three people who spoke at the Freeholders’ meeting, according to Connelly and another SCCC Trustee. 

“It’s not done,” Connelly said. Rose “called for meetings with [representatives of] Sussex Tech, Town of Newton, SCCC and the Freeholders,” to make sure every option for the location of the program has been explored, according to Connelly. 

Rose told TAPinto he thought the program should be housed in a new building to be built on the campus of Sussex County Technical School because the high school was nearing capacity and would soon be asking for additional funding to accommodate their programs. 

That solution would be “technically difficult and much more expensive,” Connelly said, after discussing the matter with the Sussex County Technical School Superintendent Gus Modla.

SCCC board of trustees Chair Lorraine Parker said, “Putting a college campus on a high school campus is not a good condition.” She said she has a number of concerns, including “some legal risks” that come to mind from her time as a judge. 

In addition to concerns about having high school and college students sharing a facility, Parker said, “We want to put a restaurant with the culinary school so the students can get real-life experience.”

Newton Medical Center President Joseph DiPaolo is supporting the culinary school to help with their need for employees trained in the food services. The hospital has committed to a donation to the project, along with Thorlabs President Alex Cable.

Both organizations donations are tied to the college opening a downtown campus in the McGuire property, Parker said. The college has gotten commitments of $550,000 from public and private organizations, according to Parker. 

At the meeting on Wednesday, there was a lot of support for the college purchasing the McGuire property to offer the new programs, support from active Newton residents, Parker said. “Some people said they were concerned about ratables but they were more concerned about the town going down.”

During public comment at the Freeholders' meeting, Newton resident Anwar Qarmout said, “This won’t help Newton, it will save it.”

“All I care about is that the best place presents itself without leaving Newton behind,” Connelly said. The programs will be available to students beginning this September. The McGuire property is currently being leased by the college.

“It is already getting spruced up,” and being made ready for the automotive, welding and machining students, according to Connelly. The culinary students will have classes temporarily at Camp Nejada in Stillwater.

“I only care that the academic programs succeed,” Connelly said. “I have an idea of what to do, but people want to know and talk more.” He is fine with that as long as it does not interfere with the programs going ahead.

Rose said he was happy with the Freeholders’ meeting on Wednesday and the public input about the project since the beginning of the year. Discussion will continue on September 20; in the morning with the four boards at Sussex Technical School and in the evening to members of the League of Municipalities. Parker and Connelly are presenting the initiative at the League of Municipalities meeting at the Mohawk House.