SFU's Curry Innovation Center opens | News, Sports, Jobs – Altoona Mirror

In 2019, a Curry company representative and a Saint Francis University administrator were talking at a coffee shop downtown about Curry’s planned headquarters relocation to 11th Avenue, the university’s wish for a bigger presence in Blair County and the ongoing flow of interns from the college to Curry.

Curry representative Ron McConnell asked why not formally connect the two by taking space in the former Vipond building that Curry planned to renovate?

Thus began a cooperative effort that culminated in creation of the university’s Curry Innovation Center in the recently finished building. The parties celebrated the connection Friday with a news conference on site.

The Saint Francis outreach on the first floor of the three-story building will provide engineering, environmental and business students a chance to do research that will help Curry employees solve real-world problems encountered by the company.

The parties are planning studies to help ensure that sloshing of liquids doesn’t compromise structural integrity of tanks on lube trucks; studies to help improve inventory management for the fluid power arm of the firm; and fermentation studies to enhance production of beer, wine and cheese for the firm’s Levity Brewing arm.

Curry has already been hiring Saint Francis graduates, and that should continue, said university President the Rev. Malachi Van Tassell.

The program will give students a real world view of business problems, McConnell said.

“(They’ll get) a hands-on learning experience,” said Mark Ritchey, Curry president. “(They) can (even) come to our manufacturing facilities and get dirty.”

By the time the students finish, “they’ll know us as well as we will know them,” McConnell said.

“What better way than to grow your own engineers (and environmental and business employees) right out of the chute?” McConnell asked, rhetorically.

Many of the research efforts undertaken at the facility will be in the form of capstone academic projects, according to Peter Skoner, dean of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Saint Francis is renting space, but the partnership is “deeper,” according to Van Tassell.

That became possible because the two parties share similar values.

“We’re married with (Saint Francis) in a whole host of ways,” McConnell said. “(The college) is deeply ingrained in our organization.”

The university presence began about mid-March, and several dozen students have used the site so far.

There will be research projects this summer, then the university will begin fully utilizing the facility in the fall, Van Tassell said.

Its capacity is about 200 students.

None are expected to live here, according to Van Tassell.

The university may buy a shuttle bus to help with transportation from the main campus in Loretto.

In addition to engineering, environmental and business students, those pursuing a doctorate in education degree will also use the center.

The downtown Altoona location will be Saint Francis’ second permanent outpost, along with one in Ambialet, in the south of France, Van Tassell said.

The new presence of Saint Francis downtown doubles the number of university outposts in the core of the city, noted Van Tassell, humorously.

Penn State Altoona started its downtown outpost a generation ago, but the college’s enrollment has been shrinking, as have enrollments in colleges across the nation.

Saint Francis is “bucking (that) trend,” Van Tassell said.

Over the last decade, enrollment has been “up and down” at Saint Francis, but the freshman class for the recently ended academic year was larger than any other during that time, and the class for the fall looks to be similar, Van Tassell said.

The college is holding its own because of good “outcomes” — 100 percent placement for science graduates and more than 90 percent placement for business graduates, the president said.

The Curry building project cost between $7 million and $8 million, according to Steve McKnight, CEO of the Altoona Blair County Development Corp.

Public subsidies include $500,000 in Enterprise Zone tax credits through the Department of Community and Economic Development; $150,000 in tax credits through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, which will provide reimbursement for 20 percent of qualifying costs, which haven’t been calculated McConnell said.

The federal credits were possible because the building is in the downtown historic district.

Adaptive reuses like the Curry project aren’t easy, according to McKnight.

The effort was complicated by COVID-19, which set the effort back a year and forced a rebid, according to McConnell.

After work actually commenced, COVID-related supply chain problems caused further delays.

Deterioration of the building required a complete gutting, so only the exterior walls remained, according to Peter Folen, manager of architecture at EADS.

Rebuilding to National Park Service standards for historical accuracy required reference to photos of the Sears and JC Penney stores that occupied the structure starting in the 1920s, Folen said.

Adherence to modern codes required more robust floor supporting structures than the original, to ensure they could handle the number of people who would be occupying the structure, Folen said.

The renovation features lots of flexibility, achieved through modular office furniture and movable walls.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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