Jackson Sasser didn’t need to bone up on the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui to understand the importance of putting the best face on a new building.
By the time it’s finished, Santa Fe College’s Downtown Blount Center will cost as much as $38 million. And it will be a transformational project in the truest sense of the word.
Located midway between downtown and the University of Florida – at University and 6th Street – the Blount Center will fill in educational, vocational, and opportunity gaps that Gainesville sorely needs and that UF, for all of its resources, cannot address.
Feng Shui emphasizes the “invisible energy forces” in architecture necessary to build harmony. And at its ground breaking ceremony, Sasser pointed out that the Blount Center, for all its imposing grandeur, will not front on University Avenue as might be expected.
Instead “it will open onto our 5th Avenue and Pleasant Street neighborhoods,” he said. “Our partners.”
The building’s positioning is not happenstance. It comes by way of reinforcement, and reassurance.
Santa Fe Community College opened its downtown center, in the old Atlantic Coast Railroad Station on 6th Street, in 1990. The college soon began to acquire property and expand with a rapidity that unsettled some long time businesses and residents.
“When we got here we were often at odds with our neighbors,” Sasser acknowledged. Over the years, however, “they have become our best” supporters.
He wouldn’t come right out and say it, but Sasser himself deserves much of the credit for the college’s Feng Shui-like transformation on 6th Street.
He was not president when the train station was converted into classrooms. But Sasser is the chief architect of Santa Fe’s East Gainesville Project – a concerted effort to reach into Gainesville’s historic African-American neighborhoods and provide whatever support, reinforcement and services the college could render to residents who have been too long neglected.
Now on the edge of retirement, Sasser argues that maintaining and reinforcing the college’s east Gainesville outreach is more important than ever.
“The inequities in our area are immoral,” he told me last fall, at the beginning of the new academic year. He cited the “Understanding Racial Equality in Alachua County” study finding that 45 percent of African American children in this county still live in poverty, and that black unemployment is double that of whites.
“We need to keep our North Star very clear in front of us, this idea that everyone can learn. We need to do everything Santa Fe College, with its resources, can do to address what I think is an immoral position…”
When it is completed the Blount Center – with its emphasis on business programs and expanded incubator operations” – will clearly boost downtown’s economic and redevelopment prospects. “We are part of the downtown renaissance,” Sasser says.
But Sasser insists that the center’s core mission – its reason for being – will be to expand the college’s East Gainesville outreach. It will be a “full service” campus, offering education, vocational training, counseling, financial aid, career placement and more, to those who most need it.
It is all about “opening doors,” he said.
Sasser will shortly be stepping down, making way for Paul Broadie, Santa Fe’s fifth president – and it’s first African-American leader.
Broadie has promised to focus on “workforce development and to address the needs of the underserved.” To close “equity gaps” and provide “opportunities so everyone is successful.”
In that regard he will find that Sasser has laid down a proper foundation upon which to build.
In true Feng Shui fashion.
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)