Building the Brand

To accommodate a record surge in student enrollment and its own ambitious growth plans, historic Young Harris College in mountainous northeast Georgia is aggressively building new facilities.

Squarely in the middle of the construction clamor is Young Harris President Cathy Cox. Her involvement goes well beyond reviewing strategic plans and poring over budget numbers, however. Cox can also be found selecting building materials, picking paint colors, and counting the ways the college might leverage its biggest expansion ever.

 “President Cox has expressed that she is interested in far more than erecting new structures,” said Robert Kochansky, senior project manager for Hardin Construction Company, the construction manager for two new buildings projects on the Young Harris campus. “She has a keen sense of the enormous possibilities of her building program and compelling ideas about how to maximize the program’s impact.”

Cox’s personal involvement has been key to shepherding what might have become a frenzied rush to meet an urgent need into a thoughtful yet briskly paced undertaking that is, among other things, enhancing college relations, establishing modern development standards for the historic campus, modeling environmental conservation for the region, and boosting the local economy.

As much as the program is expanding campus infrastructure, it is also quite intentionally shaping feelings, attitudes, and perceptions about the College.

A Charge to Keep
These are heady times for Cox and Young Harris. Founded in 1886, the private, liberal arts College has built a solid reputation for academic excellence, and counts two governors and two Grammy-winning recording artists among its alumni. Long known for nurturing students during the first two years of college, Young Harris received accreditation in 2008 to grant bachelor’s degrees. The college’s unprecedented building program will accommodate Young Harris’ transition from a two-year to a four-year institution.

Young Harris’ updated vision and strategic plan calls for virtually doubling the student population from the current 700 to between 1,200 and 1,500 over the next few years; significant faculty growth; expanded academic programs; and, of course, a construction explosion to accommodate it all.

The college’s Board of Trustees hired Cox, the institution’s twenty-first president and formerly Georgia’s Secretary of State, to preside over Young Harris’ growth into a more comprehensive institution.

For her part, Cox warmed to the challenge. “If they had been looking for someone to just keep things running on autopilot, it’s very likely I would still be practicing law,” she said.

Beyond Bricks and Mortar
Cox takes a holistic view of the imprint the College’s ambitious master building plan can make. “We have entered a period of important additions to our campus,” she said. “But rather than build generic facilities simply to meet our significant needs, we have an opportunity to be transformative.”

Early on, Cox established that the new campus development would set modern standards for design, quality, amenities, and campus aesthetics. Also on her mind: how to balance the historic with the here-and-now; how the building program might create spill-over benefits for the town of Young Harris; and the new buildings’ potential to spark student recruitment and retention as well as their implications for alumni relations.

“Even as we grow, our vision is to maintain the traditions and unique environment that make Young Harris so distinctive,” Cox said. “It’s not just about bringing modern structures to campus for a new generation of students. Our alumni have a strong sense of connectedness to Young Harris. We don’t want them to visit and be shocked. We want them to feel like it’s the Young Harris they know and love, but more modern.”
She also has definite ideas about what others can, and should, bring to the transformation equation. Said Jay Stroman, vice president for Institutional Advancement at Young Harris: “Cathy sets the vision, but she believes wholeheartedly in including others in the conversation.” 

And selecting a general contractor involved more than automatically selecting a low bidder. “When we met with Hardin Construction and others, I was interested in eyeballing them to get a sense of what kind of people we would be working with every day, and to understand how well they would fit with our campus environment.” The choice ultimately rested on the added value Hardin brought to the position, Cox said.

Putting Ideals Into Action
These assorted considerations played out in the planning and construction of the first new building for the Cox administration, a $16M, 200-bed residential facility, Enotah Hall.

She sought the opinions of students and recent Young Harris graduates to determine “what today’s college students want” in a residence hall, while seeking to balance the young people’s ideas with design features and amenities that would serve the College’s interest in promoting student interaction and a feeling of community.

“We also knew that we wanted the new residence hall to complement our environment,” said Cox. “We wanted large expanses of windows to take in our beautiful views, and we wanted it to set a standard for being environmentally friendly.”

Project architectural firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent studied the College’s architecture and mountain campus’ connection with the surrounding Appalachians. “They spent a tremendous amount of time understanding the language of our architecture on campus,” said Susan Rogers, vice president for Student Development at Young Harris.

“The building needed to fit into a fairly eclectic mix of existing architecture and be a forward-looking contemporary structure of its place and time,” said Joe Greco, the building’s principal designer. He noted that while most of the buildings on campus were constructed in the 1950s through the 1980s, the oldest and most iconic structure is the Susan B. Harris Chapel, built in 1892.

The firm drew from the historic chapel and tied in other campus architecture. Enotah Hall, for example, uses two tones of red brick, pulling from the color range of the chapel as well as from newer campus buildings.

Throughout construction, Cox took a strong interest in the project’s details. “She was very engaged,” said Hardin assistant project manager Frances Locke. “She picked colors, asked questions, made suggestions. She was a quick study and was very interested, for example, in alternative materials — incorporating colors and textures that might be more representative of this region of the country.”

 Hardin met the president’s level of engagement with an array of samples, models, visuals, and mock-ups to help educate and demonstrate how features of the building would look and function.

Shape of Things to Come
Dedicated last August, three-story Enotah Hall has 50 residential suites spread over six corridors in two wings. Its plethora of common areas, designed to foster a sense of community, include a two-story porch, a multi-level lobby, a second-floor mezzanine, and study “sunrooms.” Added attractions include four soundproof music practice rooms and an outdoor amphitheater.

With geothermal heating and cooling and the use of regional and recycled materials, the building includes environmentally friendly features that resonate with today’s students. It also scored enough sustainability points to earn LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Enotah Hall is the first higher-education building to achieve LEED Silver in North Georgia, and is one of only four residential facilities on Georgia college campuses to achieve this level of certification.

The new facility honors Young Harris’ architectural heritage while heralding the arrival of a new chapter in the College’s history. To boot, nearly 30 percent of the project cost was spent locally.

Currently, work crews are nearing completion of a second new building, a 61,000-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art, multipurpose recreation center that will accommodate, among other things, NCAA basketball at Young Harris for the first time in more than 40 years.

Again, at Young Harris, stacking bricks and mortar alone do not a successful construction project make. Engendering a sense of ownership and pride, the College’s students, faculty, and staff have been heavily involved in the project, from participation in the topping-out ceremony to helping to choose the color scheme for the gymnasium floor.

Contractor conduct counts, too. “Our contractor’s sensitivity to life on an active college campus has been outstanding,” Cox said. From being conscious of student exam periods to coordinating construction activity with major campus events, “Hardin has made a concentrated effort to be pro-active in communicating with us and in minimizing the impact of their operations on the campus and on the surrounding neighborhood. They’ve been about as unobtrusive as you can be. That’s important to us.”

Among other things, Cox wants the campus family and visitors — including alumni and prospective students — to have a positive association with construction, which will define the Young Harris campus for some time to come.

Krystin Dean is assistant director of Communications and Marketing for Young Harris College. She can be contacted at 706/379-5310 or via e-mail at [email protected]