By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College
Dignitaries turned over ceremonial spades of dirt along the northern edge of the Merced College campus this week, and a vague dream from 2002 finally came true.
After a decade and a half of waiting, planning and hoping, the start of construction for the 29,000-square-foot Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex was commemorated with a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, May 26.
The AgIT facility will be the first new building on campus since 2009, and it replaces original facilities that were built in the 1970s.
“It is an absolutely pivotal time for the college to move forward on this project,” said Bryan Tassey, Merced College’s Dean of Career and Technical Education. “It’s a long time coming.”
Local industry people say the building will help Merced College stay competitive.
“I’m so happy that the facility will have the technology that state universities have,” said Matthew Terra, Director of Field and Farming Operations for Eckert Cold Storage, who has served on the Merced College ag advisory committee for two decades.
“Training students in that technology, we can encourage them to stay local and contribute to the growth of our economy.”
The complex is a publicly funded project using $12.6 million from a 2002 local bond and $12.3 million in matching funds from the state via Proposition 51, a community college capital projects bond from 2016. Construction is expected to take 15 months and should be completed in August 2022.
Local farmer Raj Kahlon, who took part in the ceremony with his family, also donated $5 million, the largest sum in the college’s history, for the effort in 2018.
Kahlon, whose family name will grace the building, got involved in the project for a personal reason.
“I live in this community and always want good things to happen here,” Kahlon said. “My family and I care about nurturing future farmers from this area. Inside of this new facility, students will learn so much and go on to great careers in agriculture. The whole community will benefit, and it makes me very happy to know that.”
The animal science, crop science, plant science and horticulture programs will move into their new home in August 2022. The project will also upgrade training equipment for industrial technology programs in HVAC, industrial maintenance, electronics and computer networking.
Relocating the ag department to the AgIT complex may be the most important benefit. Ag faculty currently use offices in a handful of different buildings.
“The building unifies all of our programs,” Tassey said. “That’s hugely important. I’m looking forward most to that synergy between programs, students and faculty that will now be possible.”
The project might not have happened without then-lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom visiting Merced College during a campaign stop in 2018. Assemblyman Adam Gray pushed for the visit. Newsom saw firsthand the wear and tear on the original ag buildings, and then allocated money for the project in his first budget as governor in January 2019.
“The new building will attack everything that we need in this community,” Terra said. “There is a lot of local support behind the project, not just financial. It’s moral support.”
The AgIT complex will give a much-deserved boost to both the ag department and its well-regarded ag ambassador program. There will now be plenty of space for meetings, seminars, alumni events, fundraisers and conferences.
In that way, the mere presence of the new building can do more of the heavy lifting to recruit students, especially those who might have gone elsewhere in recent years.
Prospective students are like everyone else. They eat first with their eyes. They see a shiny new building and intuitively understand it means the school cares about providing the best resources for its people.
“This facility is such an easy sell,” said Bob Geyer, president of Sunland Ag and a member of the College’s ag advisory group. “We all support this effort. We have been losing students to other schools because we don’t have the space for them. We need to make Merced College bigger and better to compete with Fresno State and Stanislaus State in those first two years. Our young people need this.”
The new complex will also strengthen the truth behind the success of Merced College’s ag department—that the training students receive there is already top-notch.
“I’m thankful to this community for giving us the chance to build something like this,” Tassey said. “It is desperately needed.”
NOTE: A video feed of the AgIT complex construction will be made available on our website