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New owner has big plans for college campus

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By Jeff Moreland

Since the doors of St. Catharine College closed two years ago, members of the local community have been wondering what would happen with the property.

Now, one man knows what he wants to see happen, and he’s taking the steps to make it a reality.

Kevin Runner is the man behind a project known as Runchero University, and he has quite a vision for the property. The name Runchero comes from the Spanish word ‘ranchero,’ which is a symbol of agrarianism and living with the land in peaceful coexistence, and that is a big part of Runner’s plan for the property.

The company’s core values include co-existing, collaborating and sharing knowledge, Runner said, and he stressed that those values are fundamental in any community.

“I know it was really painful when the (St. Catharine College) shut down a couple of years ago, but this is, I would say, almost an epidemic that’s happening in the United States,” he said. “We look to help be a model, and some of this is an experiment. This is not something you typically do. There are lessons we learn in collaborating with some of these other work-study colleges and other colleges focused on sustainability. We can share some information and grow together.”

Runner is buying the former college campus in preparation to turn it into a work-study college, much like Berea College or Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky. In fact, the vision he has will allow the campus to join just eight others operating on a similar platform in the United States, according to Runner. He added that what he likes best about the work-study system is that it is a debt-free education.

“The students that come there are not going to leave there with any sort of debt whatsoever,” he said, pointing out that instead, students will be given the opportunity to serve in apprenticeships and internships, as well as co-ops and potentially working with local businesses to have career opportunities.

“It’s really a win-win situation; the local businesses get some good help, maybe a future employee for whatever they’re looking to do.”

For those not familiar with work-study colleges, Runner said it is different than the traditional higher education route taken by students.

While students will learn, the programs in which they will study will not necessarily be accredited, and Runner said accreditation is not the goal.

“We’re going to be focused on a lot of things that are not accredited particularly. And accreditation is not the focus of what we’re looking to do. There are a lot of people that really need help and healing out there, and education is a big part of that. When you look at the poverty rate in this area, I think one county is 20 percent (Washington County), and another county is 22 percent (Marion County).

“That’s our dashboard and our metric to see if we’re successful with our mission here. We look to collaborate with other colleges to have this as a satellite campus so that we can offer some accreditation.”

Runner said schools such as University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University are possible options, as well as some private schools are potential partners in the process.

“We are looking at a new model for higher education, and we call it a community university. We look at ourselves at Runchero as just facilitating this entire thing. The end goal is that we want to turn this whole property into a land trust, which would be owned by the community in perpetuity,” he explained. “The community is the entity that built this campus here, with their support financially and being there for all of the fundraising over the years. This isn’t going to go anywhere, this belongs to the community.”

When Runner uses the word community, he said he is referring to not just Springfield, but the tri-county area to include Nelson and Marion counties, as well as Washington County.

“I like to look at the campus as being a community center. Not a typical community center, but if you look at the community being the tri-county area, this could be a place where anyone in the community and any walk of life could come and reboot or get a second chance,” Runner explained. “If someone is down and out and working a job in a rut and can’t break out, they can come here, stay in the housing we have here, all debt free, based on their contribution helping out. Hopefully we can find something the community or campus needs that aligns with their purpose and passion.

“A lot of the modern higher education isn’t designed for people that have been out of the market for a while. It’s designed for going to high school and then going straight to college. This is very non-traditional. In order to work on that 22-percent poverty rate, well, there’s a full spectrum of people out there, and a lot of people are probably doing things they aren’t enjoying doing. We want to help them find what that passion and purpose is, and align them through counseling and academic advising of ‘here are some courses we can set you up with.’”

Initially the campus will belong to Runner and investors, including lenders who will provide the money for the purchase. He said the purchase has been delayed a bit in the past, but he expects it to be completed soon, with a closing on the sale set to take place this month. He said the sale is expected to close on or before Aug. 31, which is the extension deadline with the courts.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to be able to meet that deadline. The biggest problem has been the uniqueness of the property and the location,” he explained. “A lot of the lenders we’re talking to are not from the local area, and they see this as a small little town of 3,000 people in a rural area. Their main fear is if they ever got stuck with it, what would they do with it. And the fact that it’s been sitting on the market for two years, and there weren’t any other bidders against us when we did the auction.”

Runner added that the Runchero University project on the St. Catharine campus will bring educational facilities back to the area, including healthcare. He said the health sciences building on the campus is amazing, and although the equipment that was once there has since been removed, the plumbing and “bones” of the facility are in good shape. He added that all of the buildings are in good shape inside. The campus has been maintained with mowing and security services provided, and the heating and air-conditioning units have been operating to keep things in good order.

“We’re looking to find a tenant that will provide some outpatient care, advanced diagnostics, as well as some training and education with that, as well. I like to say that everything we do is educational,” Runner said.

Runner is getting an education himself throughout the process of obtaining the property and getting things off the ground.

“People ask me, ‘When are we going to get started?’ I like to joke around and say, ‘We actually have gotten started. I’ve been taking a course on how to buy a rural college campus,’” he said. “This is my first time doing something like this. Most of my career has been in software, and we’ve sold to the higher education marketplace, but that’s from a totally different perspective in terms of opening up the college.”

Runner already has in-depth plans for most of the campus, including using former dormitories for lodging for those who might use the campus in its new operation, or even as a bed and breakfast type facility for those possibly drawn to the campus to explore and learn more about what is being offered, or for seminars and conferences like those held on the campus when it was St. Catharine College. Runner said he is aware of groups that brought 250-300 people to the campus for religious conferences and other camps and activities, and he is certainly open to that type of use in the future with Runchero University.

Other facilities, such as the health sciences building, will be used similarly to their original purpose. Runner said he wants to see the university use the building to provide diagnostic and emergency medical care, but also the education portion of the medical field. He is hoping to have some people in residency, as we as those looking to get into the medical field having the chance to learn while working there.

“From what I understand, they used to provide free sonography visits to pregnant women in the area, and that’s fantastic. I’d like to extend that even more, providing good health and wellness visits for people that come in, as well as your annual check-up and blood work, even if they don’t have insurance,” Runner said. He added that some health insurance could be accepted to help subsidize the facility, but he doesn’t want to see anyone not receive care because they don’t have insurance.

The campus has an athletic complex including a track, soccer field, tennis courts and baseball and softball fields, and Runner wants those used by the community, as well. He said as a non-traditional university, Runchero will not have formal sports teams.

“Those should all be to the benefit of the community,” Runner said. “I would like to sponsor a local soccer club, and I did talk to someone who is very passionate about soccer in the area. I think with enough community support, the community can help manage and maintain the sports complex and have the benefit of that.”

He added that he has spoken with officials in the Washington County School District about their possible use of the sports facilities, but had no further details at this time. The district does not currently have its own facilities for baseball, softball, tennis or track.

Agriculture and farm-fresh food will be another focus of the campus, and Runner said that’s an area that is important to him. He said the kitchen area of the Spalding Center on campus will be used for meals for those on the campus, as well as members of the community to come and experience.

“I think it’s time to have a turn to localism for the food. Most stores you go to, you don’t find food sourced in a local area. We can co-exist with those bigger chain grocery stores with some small local ones,” he said. “We want to bring back the corner grocery; not just a farmers market selling the raw produce and raw meats, but actually having the pre-prepared meals that are being cooked by not only culinary school students coming in here, but also by local community members that want to help out. We’ll be looking to open up the kitchen to a wide variety of uses.”

Runner said when referring to the campus, he likes to use the term “we” in reference to the community, because that’s who will be in charge of the university.

“There’s not going to be one president or one CEO of this thing, it should be a council that drives it, and that goes in line with the non-profit nature of a community land trust,” he said. “We’re basically stewards of the land for the benefit of the community. We’ll start recruiting some other people to be on these boards and councils, and hopefully people will come out and want to contribute here.”

Runner has many more ideas, and far more than can be listed here. To learn more about Runchero University and what is planned for the campus, visit vision.runchero.com, or scan the QR code below.