In a stunning announcement Tuesday afternoon, Western Michigan University said it is leaving Punta Gorda after just two years.
The location is closing its doors effective Aug. 31.
This was news to many here working closely with WMU. Staff and students were informed Monday night, and local leadership, including Charlotte County commissioners, the Charlotte County Economic Development Office (EDO) and the Punta Gorda Airport (PGD) were informed Tuesday, WMU spokesperson Tony Proudfoot told the Sun.
“We’ve been meeting with our partners today,” Proudfoot said Tuesday. “(With) As many of our constituents in the area as has been practical,” he added.
Attempts to contact PGD for comment were not immediately successful Tuesday afternoon, as an airport spokesperson said CEO James Parish was out of the office. Attempts to contact EDO were also unsuccessful.
WMU started moving toward closing Feb. 4 when they suspended recruitment, and made the final decision late last week, Proudfoot said.
“It’s not just any one thing,” Proudfoot said. “The demographic trends are just a real challenge here.”
The plans for the location were also built on the expectation that the aviation program, along with collaboration with local economic development partners and Florida Southwestern State College, would attract private student housing and retail development.
“Those plans did not materialize,” the school stated in a press release Tuesday afternoon.
“It is always unfortunate when a business or organization closes within Charlotte County,” said Jennifer Huber, a spokesperson for Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau.
The school had entered into an economic development investment agreement with Charlotte County back in March 2017. Up to $500,000 in improvements were agreed to be done by the county to an airport hangar complex WMU leased for their aviation program, WMU said in 2017.
WMU agreed to continuously operate the program at PGD for no less than five years, or refund $100,000 to Charlotte County for every year less than that five-year period the program operates.
“This decision is very new,” Proudfoot said when asked how much WMU will have to pay the county. “We will have to identify exactly what that figure is.”
The school would be slated to owe an estimated $300,000 by pulling out early.
WMU also agreed to invest no less than $2 million in building improvements and/or equipment and training prior to July 2018, to support the aviation flight training degree, the school said in 2017.
Currently, the location enrolls two music therapy students and 38 aviation students. The College of Aviation here is operated by 13 employees, and four hourly flight instructors.
The school also stated in Tuesday’s announcement the aviation program enrollment has been “substantially less than anticipated in the first two years of operation.”
The University determined they would need an enrollment of 200 students to have a net-positive balance sheet.
Music therapy students will transition back to the main campus in Kalamazoo, Mich., at the end of their spring semester. As for remaining students, WMU will advise them and develop transition plans that keep students on track to get their degree.