The former main campus of Rowan College at Burlington County is a bit forlorn, but beautiful.
Set on 225 woodsy, gently rolling acres near the Rancocas Creek in Pemberton Township, the somewhat remote site was left mostly vacant after administrative and academic operations were shifted to the more conveniently located Mount Laurel campus beginning in 2015.
The last three classes in Pemberton ended in December 2017 and the half-century-old campus is for sale, or for redevelopment in partnership with the college. But there’s been little interest so far, college president Michael A. Cioce said Thursday from his office at the new main campus in Mount Laurel.
“Since the fall of 2017, we’ve gotten many unsolicited inquiries from people with no money,” said Cioce, who served as interim president before becoming president in 2018.
Last year, the college hired a Paoli real estate consulting firm, RES Advisors, to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) to attract interest in the property. Issued Oct. 9, the RFP drew 80 inquiries, 17 of them seemingly serious, but by the Jan. 11 deadline the college had received “zero completed submissions,” he said.
It struck me that this might turn out to be a good thing. About that, more in a moment.
The Pemberton campus has four major buildings — two of them built in 1970 and two more in the mid- to late 1990s — and includes a 575-seat theater, a library, and a gym with a fitness center, basketball court, and Olympic-size pool still actively in use by students and the public. There also are seven tennis courts, two baseball diamonds, a soccer field, a boat launch on the Rancocas, and nearly 2,000 parking spaces.
By far the most passionate interest has come not from would-be buyers or redevelopment partners, but from local residents who love the nearly 50-year-old pool and are lobbying the college administration and the county freeholders to keep it open to the public no matter what becomes of the rest of the campus.
"It would be a shame if it closed,” said Diana Giampietro, a 42-year-old mother of four from Riverside who has regularly taken her kids to the pool for seven years. Bill Hankins, 87, a retired Drexel University administrator who lives in Mansfield Township and swims laps three or four days a week, agreed. “I hope somebody takes it, the county or somebody, and keeps it open,” he said.
While Cioce said it’s no simple thing to “turn over ownership of the building for a dollar and let someone else run it,” as has been suggested by some pool patrons, he also said "county residents have a valid concern” about public access to the facility.
Supporters of the pool have attended meetings of the college board of trustees as well as the county Board of Freeholders. The college owns the property free and clear and is not under the supervision of the freeholders. But the county provided $4.1 million of the $44 million operating budget for the current fiscal year.
I recently visited the Pemberton campus, which costs the college $600,000 a year to maintain. The weather was frigid, but sunny, and while passing security vehicles broke the quiet, the empty parking lots and sidewalks lent the place a melancholy feel.
The college was founded in 1969 — there were worries even then that Pemberton was too far from the county’s most densely populated communities — but a classroom building and the physical-education complex opened in 1971. All four main buildings are paid for and appear to be in generally good condition, although the central HVAC system that serves the campus needs to be replaced.
Another potential obstacle to buyers: Most of the campus is made up of wetlands, with only an estimated 64 acres, including those that surround existing buildings, available for development.
Cioce said the college is considering what to do next and will be conferring with the freeholders and others.
Which brings us back to that potential good thing I mentioned.
Perhaps this is a chance for administrators, faculty, the college’s 9,000 students, and the community, to get creative about repurposing or, better yet, reimagining what Cioce rightly called a “unique” place.