Institute for Deaf and Blind site renovations 'ahead of schedule'

Jun. 23—Renovations to make way for an Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind facility at the former Lurleen B. Wallace Center along U.S. 31 in south Decatur are ahead of schedule, according to institute officials.

The facility at the 200-acre, multi-building campus will provide services for about 3,500 deaf and blind people, with about 75 of them living on-site.

About 20 people toured the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB) North site this week to see progress that has been made despite many construction projects being slowed by pandemic-related supply chain issues.

Jeff Jobe, superintendent for Bailey-Harris Construction, said hazardous material abatement and demolition of the Wallace Center's gym and cafeteria are complete, and re-roofing and interior wall construction are ongoing on at least 11 buildings on the property.

Jobe said it could be February 2023 before two residence halls are completed.

"The residence hall apartments will be designed to allow nine residents to live and learn in each," he said.

The buildings are now concrete shells with leaky roofs. But signs of progress are evident.

"Construction is currently a month ahead of schedule," said Dennis Gilliam, executive director of special projects for AIDB. "With the supply chain issues everyone is experiencing, it is remarkable that the construction companies have been right on top of everything. They were prepared for those issues and time schedules and placed orders ahead of time."

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, helped secure $28.6 million in state money for the project.

"Renovation projects take time," Orr said, noting the cleanup needed when the project started in 2021 after years of deterioration and vandalism. "One of the key selling points of getting the state to reinvest in the site was that the buildings had good bones. And if we restored the flesh to those bones, it would be much cheaper than new construction to have tens of thousands of square feet of good space that will last for decades."

In 2021 the Alabama National Guard, which owned the property since 2015, conveyed the property to AIDB after the Guard decided it no longer wanted a training facility there.

Orr said the Guard made about $7 million in improvements to the site before leaving.

"The National Guard's burying the utilities and restoring the sewer lines are hidden contributions from which AIDB is able to develop its campus," Orr said.

John Mascia, AIDB president, said in 18 to 24 months the site should be "fully operational" with some programs being five years away.

"But we are operating select programs now," he said. "We are not waiting to finish the whole project before we serve people. We serve people as the need arises. A couple of hundred people are being served. ... We really like to say 'yes.' Many of the residents hear 'no' too often."

A summer camp for blind and deaf students focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and agriculture is underway this week on the property. Some students were learning to fly sophisticated drones.

Candi Harbison, director of Gallaudet University Regional Center, said she was impressed with what she saw during the tour.

"I'm very excited to see all of the new buildings going up," she said through an interpreter. "It's nice to see the designs, ideas, visions that have been brought here and all of the partnerships we have here. When I was growing up, we would never have seen this type of facility."

A network of agencies including the nearby AIDB Decatur Regional Center, Alabama Freedom Center for the Blind, the National Technology Institute for the Deaf and Gallaudet University Regional Center are providing input into the renovations.

Mascia said AIDB North will offer services for infants through adults, mainly serving a population in Morgan, Limestone, Lawrence and Cullman counties.

Orr said students from surrounding states will also be able to attend and benefit from the facility.

Gallaudet is a private liberal arts university based in Washington, D.C., for the deaf and hard of hearing. In addition to Talladega, Gallaudet has regional centers in Massachusetts, Texas and California.

AIDB North will offer three STEM programs — in mechatronic engineering, robotics and cybersecurity — and be home to the Southeast STEM Academy program for students who have hearing issues.

At the groundbreaking in September, Mascia said about 25 to 50 employees with annual salaries from $30,000 to about $60,000 and state benefits would be hired in the first couple of years. Mascia said educators in adult rehabilitation for deaf and blind individuals, social workers, internet technology teachers, people with computer backgrounds and maintenance workers are needed.

The Wallace Center was the state Department of Mental Health's first regional developmental center. It opened in 1971 and the center's last 40 patients were discharged when it closed in 2003. The National Guard announced it would locate a training facility on the property in 2015 but those plans later changed.

Orr said in an effort to find a new use for the property, he visited the Talladega-based AIDB in May 2020 with the idea of allowing the Deaf and Blind Institute to improve and use the dilapidated facility. or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.