BY SHERI McWHIRTER
TRAVERSE CITY — Two incumbents and two challengers are in a race for a pair of open six-year seats on the local community college board.
Northwestern Michigan College incumbent trustees Cheryl Gore Follette and Robert Brick are seeking re-election and are challenged by local banker and businessman Bruce Byl and retired attorney Kennard Weaver. Three candidates live in Peninsula Township and Follette lives in Garfield Township.
Follette, 57, a local attorney, was first elected in 1992 and is the board's longest serving trustee. Voters elected Brick, 60, a local real estate broker, in 2004.
Both incumbents said they are proud of the college's fiscal responsibility during a challenging economy, managed against a backdrop of dwindling state funding and a growing student population.
"I think it's noteworthy that we've done really well despite the economic downturn," Follette said. "We have been able to continue to grow and offer new programs and quality services to our students. We are accessible and we are affordable. When we stop doing those things, we stop meeting the needs of the community."
Brick said keeping the college's budget in check is part of preparing for the future.
"We've balanced our budget every year and strengthened the fiscal operations of the college and prepared ourselves for the coming job and educational transformation that's occurring," he said.
Brick was influential this year when the college purchased a nearly foreclosed on factory near its Aero Park campus off Parsons Road. The college spent $1.1 million to buy the former Acra Inc. automotive manufacturing plant from Frederick W. Sorensen, who co-owns property in Leelanau County with Brick, a life-long friend.
Brick abstained from discussion and voting on the land deal and declined a $100,000-plus commission after listing the property with his real estate company. Some encouraged him to step down from the board to accept the commission, but Brick opted against that suggestion.
"I'm glad the college has it. It's a great facility. They made a great purchase and it will serve us well for many years to come," he said.
The building will help foster new programs at NMC, such as hybrid automotive and construction management, he said.
The challengers both agree funding will continue to be a challenge at NMC, like other community colleges in Michigan. Byl, 55, wants to maintain NMC's affordable tuition rates, while Weaver, 70, wants to transform the college into a four-year university.
"If (voters) feel an entrepreneurial background would be beneficial to the college, I can help there. I can't solve all the problems, but as part of a team I can help," Byl said.
Weaver said he wants to see NMC put more emphasis on working toward local economic development.
"I would like to see it become a four-year institution. Four-year institutions spawn new businesses and we need more jobs in this area. I don't think you can continue to be a two-year college and survive in the next 10 years," Weaver said.
Byl hopes to better connect NMC to area and global businesses, while Weaver said he would strive to hire more full-time faculty instead of adjunct instructors.
Coming Tuesday: Leelanau County commission