CLARKDALE - Like every community college in the state, if not the rest of the nation, the economic slump is slamming Yavapai College.
Facing further budget cuts from the state, the school has begun looking for ways to make its programs pay for themselves. In a rural place like the Verde Valley, where few industries are located, it can be a particularly difficult challenge.
But about four years ago, Yavapai College did something that few, if any, at the time dreamed could become their salvation. As the Verde Valley Wine Consortium was gathering support, its members made a plea to the college to add viticulture and oenology classes to its curriculum.
Seeing their role as one of support for their community, college administrators jumped on the idea of helping.
At first offering wine appreciation classes, the program has since expanded to include a certification program that prepares students for careers in the business.
And last year, through the generosity of local vineyard owner and winemaker-in-training Maynard Keenan, Yavapai College saw its first acre of vines planted.
At a meeting last week of members of the Yavapai College Foundation, local vineyard owners and members of the consortium heard from a group of college administrators about an ambitious plan that may someday turn the school's wine education program into a money-generating program.
The idea is to plant additional vineyards on some of the Verde Campus's 100 acres of vacant land and, eventually, build an education center that also serves as a winery.
Yavapai College recently hired Greg Gillespie as its vice president of academic and student affairs. He is a former administrator who has considerable expertise in the wine education curriculum, having helped build wine programs at two community colleges in Washington State.
"Where we end up is hard to say for now," says Gillespie, "You could work cooperatively with winery owners, have them plant the vines and keep most of the grapes, while we use some for our classes.
"Or we could plant the vines ourselves, use some for education and sell the rest to fund other programs. There is more than one model. We will just have to decide which makes the most sense."
The challenge will be coming up with the seed money to get it all started.
"As we move forward with this, what we hope to do is partner up with anyone who can come up with a million dollars to make it happen. That's the foundation's mission. That's the reason for meeting with them first," says Verde campus Executive Dean Tom Schumacher.
Bob Oliphant, board member of the Greater Verde Valley chapter of the Yavapai College Foundation, says there is tremendous support for the idea.
"It is an exciting idea to turn Yavapai College into the state's academic leader in this area," Oliphant says.
Schumacher stresses it is a conceptual plan for now, but he feels the program could go a long way toward the long-term economic stability of the college.
"Realistically, we have to start looking at other sources of funding," Schumacher says. "When you hit rock bottom, your real creative thinking kicks in, and this could certainly be a moneymaker."