Cumberland County College’s Board of Trustees took a major first step Thursday toward possible construction of an estimated $7 million Arts and Business Innovation Center in downtown Millville.

Trustees voted 10-0 to approve a memorandum of understanding with the Millville Urban Redevelopment Corp. that calls for a 30,000-square-foot, three story building on the southeast corner of High and Vine streets.

CCC would lease about 18,000 square feet of the building, offering credit and non-credit arts programs along with Clay College, a ceramics studio located on High Street near Sassafras Street, officials said. Clay College has been part of Millville’s downtown Arts District for about a decade, during which thousands of people have taken ceramic courses, the said.

The center would also house the Cumberland and Salem Workforce Education Alliance, which is CCC’s non-credit arm.

CCC officials said in a statement that the college can, through the alliance, “tailor many of its public and community education programs directly to the needs of individual corporations and businesses.” The alliance could, for instance, help train local employees to better market a business through specialized software or graphic arts courses, they said.

While the proposal still has to undergo further study before a final commitment to the project is given, CCC officials are enthusiastic about its potential.

“Opening this center would enable Cumberland County College to offer its arts and work force development program in the heart of the Millville Arts District,” said CCC President Thomas Isekenegbe. “This will create great opportunities for our students to interact and provide for area artists and businesses.”

Isekenegbe said the proposed center would “provide an outstanding environment for our students to thrive in the midst of a real-world arts community.” He called services there “learning at its best, in which students will be able to utilize the skills they have learned to benefit area businesses.”

The Millville Urban Redevelopment Corp. is a private non-profit corporation that handles Millville’s economic-development efforts. Corporation officials said in a statement that they estimate the proposed center would accommodate 500 students per semester, bring hundreds of new arts patrons to the Arts District, and create 30 new downtown businesses.

The center will join with the existing Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts and the recently re-opened Levoy Theatre to become a “third major component” in the downtown Arts District, corporation director Don Ayres said.

According to CCC officials, the corporation will provide about $2.5 million in capital funding for the project, with the college providing another $1.5 million in state funds. The remaining $3 million will be provided through grants, bonding and partnerships, they said.

Project architect Larry Merighi of MMPF Architects of Vineland told the trustees during their meeting at the college in Vineland that the while the building fronts High Street, there will be parking areas along Vine and Second streets.

The first floor of the building will house some CCC operations along with Clay College, galleries and some retail space, he said. The retail space could possibly hold a an arts supply store or coffee shop, something that compliments what is happening in the center, he said.

The second floor is dedicated to CCC, Mereghi said. The business innovation center occupies the third floor, he said.

The one-acre site is home to a building that houses offices for the corporation, the local chamber of commerce and the Arts District. Ayres said those entities, which moved into that building earlier this year, could relocate to the proposed center.

A plan to revitalize the High Street business district began in 2000 after years of studies were conducted to determine the best way to bolster downtowns businesses. The decision to go with an arts district stemmed in part from the city’s once-booming glass industry.

Millville officials say merchants have since invested millions into upgrading their High Street properties. Store-vacancy rates that were about 50 percent a decade ago decreased considerably.

However, there is some opposition to the Arts District. Some Millville taxpayer groups contend money is being wasted on a venture that will never fully succeed, and favor a more conventional business environment paid for with private capital.

Arts District officials admit that arts-related business has suffered during the economic downturn of the past few years.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197