RPCC’s founding father steps away as college begins new milestone

RPCC Chancellor Joe Ben Welch has announced he will retire at the end of August as the college prepares to move to a new campus next year. Here he stands outside the current campus’ main building with an artistic representation of the new campus that’s being built in Gonzales.

When River Parishes Community College opened its doors in 1999, there was no main campus. Chancellor Joe Ben Welch had to “beg, borrow and steal” classroom space wherever he could find it in Sorrento: St. Anne Catholic Church, the Sorrento Volunteer Fire Department and The Cajun Village.

Since then, Welch has guided RPCC to its current campus and to its future campus at the Edenborne development in Gonzalez, where it will be visible from Interstate 10 and possibly ready for summer classes in 2014.
But Welch will not hold the reins of Ascension Parish’s flagship community college when the first phase of the new campus is completed. The longtime chancellor expects to retire at the end of August, which he announced in mid-May.

“It’s been a great ride,” Welch said.

A Zachary native, Welch returned to his home state to help build RPCC after serving as president at Middle Georgia College for nine years. He was also a founding president of a satellite campus for Lamar University in Texas, where he served for two decades.

Welch said he first contemplated retirement while in Georgia. But then he learned about the opportunity to build and grow a community college in Sorrento.

“And I said, Well, ya know, I’d like to do that again,” Welch said.

The 2013 graduating class of RPCC had 206 students — twice as many as those that first enrolled in 1999.

“It’s been slow, but it’s moving forward,” Welch said of RPCC’s growth.

However, the college anticipates enrollment to grow to more than 4,000 students for the upcoming fall semester after enrolling 3,600 last fall.

Bill Martin, executive vice chancellor at RPCC, said the new campus is expected to attract even more students, noting many commuters at Baton Rouge Community College are residents of Ascension and St. John the Baptist parishes.

“We’ll keep some people here,” said Martin, noting the new campus’ aesthetic appeal will make the difference in retention compared to RPCC’s current campus with a gravel parking lot, farmhouse and T-buildings.
The first phase of the new campus will include 38 classrooms and a two-story library within nearly 83,000 square feet of space. Construction is estimated to cost $18 million.

Welch said an anticipated second phase will include a technology center for training in electronics, processes technology for plant operations, welding, carpentry, and other skilled labor.

“The local economy is going to boom — you can already see it coming,” Welch says. “We got $20 (billion) to $25 billion in construction coming to Ascension Parish. They’re going to be looking for at least 20,000 employees.”

To put the potential new construction in perspective, Welch notes the Nucor Corp. steel plant is a $2.5 billion facility. “You say $20 billion, I mean you got something going.”

Welch said he will watch the growth from his home in Pelican Point subdivision.

Current campus’ main building

Replacing Welch at RPCC will not be easy.

“They hired someone with tremendous experience,” Martin said. “He’s not a micro-manager; he tries to hire good and experienced people.”

Welch, Martin said, is also a present force in the community and an able negotiator with lawmakers.

For now, it is unknown who will fill Welch’s shoes in the interim after he retires. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System will conduct the search for a new chancellor.

The community has fully embraced RPCC as an integral part of the parish and its education, Welch said, a turnaround from some of the skeptical questioning it faced about 15 years ago.

“I think they really appreciate the fact that we’ve persevered here to get the state resources to make it happen,” Welch said.

By Adam Pearson