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Could Cumberland County College campus revitalize downtown Millville?

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MILLVILLE — Marianne Lods looks out the gallery windows of the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts.

Down the block is the Regional Music building under new ownership and renovation. Farther down High Street is the Arts Cafe, which hasn’t yet opened but now has a sign above its doors.

And one block farther is the new and massive Millville Arts & Innovation Center — the new Cumberland County College campus — which is spearheading a revitalization of business and culture in the local arts district.

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Lods doesn’t think resurgence is too bold of a word to describe the energy on High Street.

College downtown Millville

Marianne K. Lods, CMSM Executive Director talks about Clay College Ceramic Art Studio at Cumberland County College downtown Millville campus Thursday Feb 23, 2017. (The Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer)

“Not at all,” she said with a smile. “There are more investors that I’ve met with in the last week with brilliant ideas for a couple additional buildings. I really see 2017 as going to bring us closer to pre-recession occupancy in the buildings and an excitement in the area.”

That may start with the new 30,000-square-foot county college building.

The $6.9 million facility will house the college’s arts curriculum, along with other courses, ranging from journalism to workforce-development offerings.

College downtown Millville

Jacqueline Sandro-Greenwell Director of Clay College Ceramic Art Studio talks about the new class rooms at Cumberland County College downtown Millville campus Thursday Feb 23, 2017. (The Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer)

Helping to fund the project is $3.2 million in state funds, of which $1.6 million must be repaid. Cumberland County government is paying $800,000 of that figure, with the city paying $400,000 and other entities financing the remaining $400,000.

But action by the city almost brought the project to a halt.

City Commission voted in December 2014 against paying $800,000 toward the repayment.

The commission eventually agreed to a $400,000 payment. The money came from a land sale, city officials said.

Some commission members were wary of the impact the campus would have on the downtown and thought the money could be better spent on projects elsewhere in the municipality. But the impact of the college is already becoming visible to its neighbors.

Mike Copley owns C&C Bike Shop a few doors down on the opposite side of the street from the college.

He said he’s seen an increase in his inventory in the past year, but most recently has seen more 20-somethings popping in the store to check out his bikes.

“It’s great. Eventually they all get around town on a bike or scooter or some physical transportation, and that’s when I come in,” Copley said.

For college President Yves Salomon-Fernandez, the college’s mission and economic development are tied together.

To that effect, Salomon-Fernandez said she’s working with the city, the Greater Millville Chamber of Commerce, the Cumberland County Improvement Authority and other organizations to make the campus a significant part of the downtown business district.

“We are adopting a concerted, unified approach for moving forward,” she said.

That approach includes numbers, such as the 500 students and staff members the college expects will use the campus, with the bulk arriving for fall semester.

Those students won’t be downtown just Monday through Friday. Weekend classes are available.

Jessica Green, manager of Bogart’s Bookstore & Cafe, is expecting those students to frequent her shop for a coffee and a place to study.

“I think it means more business for us and the chance to expand our business, maybe hire a few new employees and add new events,” Green said. “As a community, it offers a lot of benefits.”

An estimated 80 students and staff members are already using the downtown campus.

One of those students is 21-year-old Bridgeton resident Ashley McKishen, a fine-arts major.

McKishen said she’d likely visit downtown shops if her school day is long, and especially if those shops are related to the arts. She said she’s already visited some stores, such as Bogart’s.

Salomon-Fernandez said the college is working with the city on signs for the downtown campus, as well as parking.

It appears as though the college will primarily handle security. Some members of the school’s security staff will walk students to their cars, said Jackie Sandro, director of the campus’ Clay College ceramics shop.

Walking through the rows of tables in the clay studio, what stands out for Sandro is the size of the campus.

And the college plans to use every square foot of it for afterschool field trips, private birthday parties and a gallery in the front windows that will switch out every two months.

Sandro is courting at least two tours each day. The community’s interest comes as no surprise.

“If you build it, they will come. I think that’s true,” she said.

College downtown Millville

Jacqueline Sandro-Greenwell Director of Clay College Ceramic Art Studio working with students at Cumberland County College downtown Millville campus Thursday Feb 23, 2017. (The Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer)

Salomon-Fernandez said the college is developing some new offerings that could bolster downtown businesses, including beverage tourism linked to vineyards and microbreweries.

Part of the goal is to have students remain in the area and develop businesses not only in Millville but in other parts of the county, she said.

Local and county officials and residents seem to be embracing the ideas, Salomon-Fernandez said.

“I feel very confident that we have this level of commitment around the success of not only the (campus) building but the region,” she said.

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I’ve written for multiple publications including Levittown Now, Passyunk Post, Philadelphia Neighborhoods,Temple News and JUMP Magazine. I’ve covered arts, entertainment, business, music, sports and local government. Experienced in videography.

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