After more than 130 years, the story of Sheldon Jackson College, a Presbyterian-affiliated college in Sitka, Alaska, seems to be coming to an end.
On Feb. 1, the college’s Board of Trustees will transfer ownership of the core campus to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which has used the campus for decades.
“In keeping with the mission of Sheldon Jackson and the college, the trustees are very happy to have found an organization that is willing and able to continue the educational legacy,” said Shirley Holloway, chairwoman of the board, in a press release.
SJC was founded in 1878 by Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson. The oldest education institution in Alaska, it first served Tlingit Indian children, and later focused on all Alaska natives. The school suspended operations in 2007 after increasing operational costs, decreasing enrollment and millions of dollars of debt made it financially insolvent.
The upcoming transfer was made possible after SJC sold three properties — the college library, apartments and a beachfront lot — in December. With those proceeds and money previously raised from the sale of other non-core campus property the school owned, SJC was able to pay back $4.2 million of the $4.6 million it owed to Alaska Growth Capital, its largest creditor. Alaska Growth Capital agree to write off the rest of the loan and released the campus, said John Holst, SJC’s executive manager.
SJC still has to pay off about $600,000 in unsecured debts. When it transfers the campus to the fine arts camp, it will hold back five parcels of land that will be used to pay back those debts, Holloway said.
The fine arts camp plans to keep the Sheldon Jackson name attached to the property, a move that many on the Board of Trustees were happy to see.
“We feel so blessed. It’s been a long, hard journey,” Holloway said. “I feel so happy that that gorgeous campus will still be there and that young people will still be on that campus continuing to learn and grow.”
Founded in 1973, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp hosts 500 students who come to learn about visual arts, music, dance, theater, writing and Alaska Native arts. It has used the campus for 25 years, but has never had a permanent home, said Roger Schmidt, executive director of the camp.
“The Sheldon Jackson campus is such a beautiful place,” he said. “We want to use it as a tool to give kids inspiration and the desire to pursue their dreams, a place where they can be home.”
The camp will work to revitalize the campus along with other community groups, including the Sitka Sound Science Center, the Sitka Summer Music Festival and the Sheldon Jackson Museum. Schmidt said he hopes the campus will be a “spark plug” for Sitka’s cultural life.
The camp starts at the beginning of June, and the next few months will be dedicated to fixing up buildings that have fallen into disrepair since SJC closed. Schmidt said the camp will eventually need to raise millions of dollars to renovate the campus.