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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Putting the Community Into the College

By Janet Miller

WCC’s Conference Services department puts the community into the College. Literally.

From presidential candidates to Motown greats, from shipwreck survivors to fans of Persian poetry, Conference Services opens up the campus to tens of thousands of visitors each year, pulling in guests from Washtenaw County and across the nation.

Groups big and small look to the College for space. WCC has done everything from hosting fledgling churches looking for a single room on Sunday mornings to handing the entire campus over to the United Association Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and HVAC Service Techs for a week every August. The College has been the venue for elegant evenings, political rallies, and children’s theater.

Requests For Event Space Have Increased Quickly

The College’s role as a venue has grown at a quick clip since 1990, when Patrick Downey worked 20 hours a week in a one-man office. Today, the office has three full-time staff plus a part-time employee, and operates seven days a week.  

WCC is on track to host 2,500 external events this year, from training classes to fundraisers to proms, bringing an expected 78,000 visitors to campus.

And while the Morris Lawrence building is the most popular venue, all seven of the College’s classroom buildings have rentable space and the Community Park is available for picnics and tented events.

Conference Services started with the opening of the Morris Lawrence building, with its 500-seat Towsley Auditorium, airy glass atrium, and classrooms. “The initial thrust was to support the UA,” Downey said.

While the UA has packed the campus cheek by jowl every August since, ringing the registers of area hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, word spread after the first year that WCC had space to rent. Wild Swan Theater soon rented Towsley Auditorium for performances. Washtenaw County government wanted space to hold meetings. Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley began holding special events.

The idea, Downey said, was to offer space to nonprofits, which book about 90 percent of all events. The idea was also not to compete with Washtenaw County’s private conference venues. The College doesn’t advertise its conference service options, Downey said.

Still, organizations began to line up: Washtenaw Literacy, the American Red Cross, and the Huron Valley Boys and Girls Club wanted to hold events at the College. “They saw this as beautiful space for fundraisers,” Downey said.

Requests Quickly Expanded Beyond Local Groups

Big names followed. The 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful, John Kerry, held a rally inside Towsley Auditorium to a packed house, a visit that saw Downey work with the U.S. Secret Service.

Seats had to be removed to build a special section for the traveling press and marksmen were stationed on the roof of the Morris Lawrence building. Kerry’s lunch had to be prepared by WCC staff—peanut butter and jelly and vegetable soup, hold the meat. “I remember him practicing how to say Washtenaw. He practiced it several times because he wanted to get it right,” Downey said.

A lineup of Motown greats from the Temptations to the Four Tops filled Towsley seats during the Living Legends series, vibrating the walls and bringing crowds to their feet. But it was a Boys and Girls Club dinner that holds the most lasting memory, Downey said. “(Then) Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer spoke at the dinner and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had, to see the mayor of Detroit get down and talk, face to face, with eight- and nine-year-old kids. The kids were geeked.”

Many Events Return Year After Year

For some clients, WCC has become a tradition. The Southeast Michigan Science Fair has been held on campus for decades. A number of high schools hold proms at the Morris Lawrence building, decking it out in ribbons and bows. It’s become such a tradition with Tecumseh High School that it booked a date for 2014, Downey said. “It’s always the fourth Saturday in April.”

For others, it’s a tradition in the making. This is the fourth year the Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival was held at the Morris Lawrence building. It offered seminars on shipwrecks and Detroit river cannons and introduced Dennis Hale, the lone survivor of a 1966 shipwreck on Lake Huron, who spent 38 hours in a life raft in 35-foot seas.

After holding the festival at other locations for 27 years, the sponsoring Ford Seahorses Scuba Diving Club discovered WCC. “It was a good size, not too big and not too small. And we can expand to meet our needs,” said Michael Kennedy, treasurer of the diving club. “We tried several different venues, but none of them fit our needs or were as easy to deal with.”

Conference Services Pays Close Attention to Details

Instead of sending clients on an endless trail of contacts—someone for the catering, another for the equipment, a groundskeeper for the signage—it’s all handled by a single contact, said Lori Courvoisier, WCC event coordinator. “It’s one of our biggest strengths,” she said. “You don’t have to jump through too many hoops.”

Community groups from around the state look to WCC for space, from the Ann Arbor Stamp Club to the Michigan Rugg Artistes to a group of men who meet Sunday night to discuss Persian poetry. The list is growing.

While demand for space saw a small decline after Pfizer Inc. left Ann Arbor five years ago—taking with it support for nonprofit events—it has recovered, Downey said. Some new clients bode well for the economy ahead, including an automotive supply company renting space for pre-employment testing. “We’re part of putting people back to work,” he said.

Conference services supports the community, Downey said. “All three presidents—Gunder Myran, Larry Whitworth, and now Rose Bellanca—wanted the College to play whatever role it could in the success of the community. It’s a way for the College to be available to the community.”

Janet Miller is a freelance writer.

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