Starting this fall, Upper Keys students of The College of the Florida Keys will no longer have to attend classes at Coral Shores High School as the college is on track to open its own building in August.

College officials and contractors from Thornton Construction, which is working on the project, gathered at the site recently to tout the 45,000-square-foot facility, which is being built on the site of a former Shell World in Key Largo.

With the sounds of the ongoing construction in the background, CFK President Dr. Jonathan Gueverra stood at the front of the building and thanked the project’s funders, including the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which provided a large grant for the project, as well as local philanthropic donors.

“To me, this is not a building,” Gueverra said. “What this represents is hope; what this represents is workforce; what this represents is opportunity because for so many of our young people especially, they have to go so much further away to get the look and feel of a college campus and the degrees and programs they deserve.”

The college has been pursuing an Upper Keys campus for more than a decade, according to Amber Ernst-Leonard, executive director of marketing and public relations, but was unable to secure a location for it until 2018 and began construction last August.

The new Upper Keys center will have an academic focus on law enforcement, nursing and apprenticeships in fields such as construction, plumbing and HVAC.

Ernst-Leonard said they will also be expanding a program from the flagship Key West campus to the Upper Keys called Project Access. The program offers people with intellectual disabilities a path to employment and independence by teaching life skills and customer service skills and offering internships.

The college’s main campus has been located on Stock Island since 1965. It began as a community college but in 2017 added its first bachelor’s degree, a business degree, and has since added bachelor’s degrees in nursing and marine science.

Ernst-Leonard said the nursing program at the college has doubled in size in the last year, becoming the largest program at the college.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, a 1987 graduate of the former community college, spoke recently as well and reflected on how far the college has come since he attended it.

“When I started it was the old college which is no longer there. They tore it down and built a new one,” Ramsay said. “Back then in the classrooms we had open doors and windows and the A/C didn’t work in half the classrooms. It was a very small campus and not a lot of opportunity for people (in terms of) when they could take classes.”

Ramsay said the old campus was a “run down, small building” and there was not yet an Institute of Public Safety at the college.

He said it is important to have a college in the Keys to provide opportunities for people to further their education without having to travel to larger, expensive colleges and leave behind family and support systems.