BY ELISABETH ANDREWS
Restoring West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Resort was only the first step of a larger “impact project,” says Steve Ferguson, chairman of Cook Group, which owns and operates the sister properties. Now that the historic hotels are generating tax revenue for Orange County, the next phase of the project can begin with the opening of the Springs Valley Learning Center (now called Orange County Learning Center at Springs Valley). This postsecondary education center, run by the Bloomington campus of Ivy Tech Community College, is designed to ensure that the resort’s economic momentum develops into widespread opportunities for community revitalization.
“The bricks-and-mortar engineering is the easy part,” says Ferguson, who helped oversee more than 12 years of renovations to the two hotels. “The more difficult side is making sure you are impacting people’s lives and helping them do what they want to do.”
Orange County has historically suffered from low employment rates and high poverty. Hoping to catalyze new opportunities for area residents, Ferguson approached Ivy Tech with the idea of starting a center in French Lick that would offer both job-skills training and college courses in subjects like math, English, and psychology. Ivy Tech-Bloomington Chancellor John Whikehart says he was more than eager to take on the project, which he believes will contribute to both individual and economic growth.
“I have a very strong belief that the way you break cycles of poverty and underemployment is through education,” says Whikehart. “We’re a comprehensive community college, and we need to be reaching these underserved areas, so we see this as a great partnership.”
In order to open the center, however, Ivy Tech required a space, which the Springs Valley Community Schools’ Corporation stepped forward to offer. Superintendent Todd Pritchett says that while the corporation’s primary mission is to offer K-12 education, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to encourage his students and other community members to continue their education.
“The Learning Center will not only expose our high school students to courses they can take for college credit, but also create multiple paths for all those who are interested in some type of postsecondary education,” he says. “In the past, they might have been limited by their travel restrictions, but this partnership with Ivy Tech-Bloomington means they can take classes both in person and virtually through our two-way video technology.”