By Dusty Vassey

TIFTON -- Abraham Baldwin College began its first day of classes Monday with the last annual press conference by outgoing president Mike Vollmer. After three years that have seen ABAC's campus grow in both students and buildings, Vollmer will leave his post Sept. 14.

"This is a special day for me and for the campus," said Vollmer. "For the campus, this is a new beginning."

When Vollmer leaves next month to take a job as head of the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education, he will leave behind a school that has reached record enrollment numbers and received numerous grants and donations for new buildings. Because of the all the money he has raised, he has been called ABAC's "$60 million man."

ABAC Public Relations Director Mike Chason described the president as "the man who has meant more to ABAC than any other" over the past three years.

During the press conference, Vollmer revealed many of the ongoing projects and plans for the school.

Groundbreaking will begin for the new Health Sciences Building in front of the Moore Building Sept. 1. A ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. The building will cost more than $5 million, around $4 million from state funds and another $1.4 million from the private sector.

The grand opening ceremony for the ABAC Place Apartments will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 23, marking the completion of the largest housing project ever to come to an American two-year college. Even as construction teams labor to finish work on the 835-room complex, students have already filled the building. Forty more students are awaiting rooms in overflow housing at Comer Hall, making the 875 total students housed an ABAC record.

"It's great to have 835 rooms," Vollmer admitted. "It's even better to have 835 rooms rented."

The new complex brings a welcome change from traditional dorm life at ABAC. Although a part of the campus, the rooms are much more like traditional apartments with kitchens, cable television, Internet connections and most apartments featuring four bedrooms. In addition, the Town Hall has a 24-hour computer room, gym and game room for residents. Eventually, a convenience store will also open as part of the Town Hall.

Outside construction continues on the buildings and lawns of the complex, while most of the inside work has already been completed.

"There are still a lot of bugs to work out," explained Chason.

With about 3,400 students enrolled and with that figure likely to increase, Vollmer hopes that within two years the number housed on campus can rise by 200 to 300.

Other projects for the school include renovations to some of the older buildings on the campus including Tift, Lewis and Herring halls. About $1 million has been allocated to extend the pedestrian mall, the series of fountains and brick walkways that winds across much of the campus. Eventually, the mall should stretch across the entire campus.

During the press conference Monday, Vollmer looked ahead for ABAC, even as the college will continue without him.

"What we have to do is plan for the future," he said.

He brought up many questions that the new leadership of ABAC will have to answer: "What is ABAC's mission?", "What do our students need?", and perhaps most importantly for the future of the school, "Do we need a four-year degree?"

Plans have already been proposed to create a four-year agricultural degree program at ABAC.

Perhaps the central question those at the college should be asking is who the next president of ABAC will be.

The chancellor of the University System of Georgia will declare an interim president, but as yet, none has been named, nor have any candidates been named publicly. A search committee will then be appointed to name a permanent successor to Vollmer. The committee will be composed of ABAC faculty and staff, alumni, members of the ABAC Foundation and members of the committee. In the past, this search process has taken eight to ten months, according to Chason.

"We would like it to be sooner than that," Chason said.

The ABAC community will say goodbye to Vollmer from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at Donaldson Dining Hall. When the president was asked if he knew how much he would be missed, Vollmer reacted in his characteristically humble style.

"The reality is how bad I'm going to miss everyone," he answered.

To contact reporter Dusty Vassey, call 382-4321, ext. 208.

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