April 11, 2010
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Fifth District U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello pledged Friday that federal officials will try to persuade the state to let the New College Institute (NCI) evolve into a university.
In doing so, he said, they will try to find federal funds to help NCI expand its curriculum and construct a new building that would be a focal point of efforts to revitalize uptown Martinsville.
When referring to federal officials, Perriello largely was speaking of himself as well as Ron Bloom, President Obama’s senior counselor for manufacturing policy, and John Fernandez, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. Bloom and Fernandez visited Martinsville in February when a local economic development strategy for the community was unveiled.
Perriello, D-Albemarle County, said other members of Congress are aware of the institute being “a top priority” for them in improving the local economy.
But the onus “is on me,” Perriello said, to convince other federal lawmakers of the need to appropriate money for NCI.
Perriello made his comments while visiting NCI and talking with students and faculty Friday afternoon.
“We need your leadership and support in Washington as we continue to grow,” NCI Associate Director Leanna Blevins told him.
NCI is “an amazing program that is attracting amazing folks” to study and work there, Perriello said.
He said that he and other federal officials “really believe in its future as a four-year university” as well as the “anchor” of uptown.
NCI is a state- and Harvest Foundation-funded school offering local access to courses needed to complete certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees from universities across the state. In 2012, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is to decide whether the institute should evolve into a university, or at least a branch campus of an existing university.
A total of 114 students have earned degrees through NCI, which currently has 17 degree programs, since it opened in 2006. Executive Director Barry Dorsey told Perriello that he expects enrollment this year will exceed 400 students and the total number of graduates to rise to more than 130.
Dorsey and other NCI executives have said the institute has achieved in less than four years the amount of success state officials had hoped to see in six.
The success has been “absolutely incredible,” said Martinsville Vice Mayor Kimble Reynolds Jr., who is on the NCI Board of Directors and employed as Perriello’s regional director.
Perriello said he thinks that as a result of those successes, NCI has “earned the right” to become a university.
Dorsey said NCI needs federal funds to establish new degree programs — it must pay universities to bring their programs to Martinsville — as well as the construction of a new building.
The economic development strategy unveiled earlier this year calls for the construction of an NCI Center for the New Economy. The center would have classrooms, faculty offices, departments related to emerging industries and resource development, and leadership development programs.
In addition, Dorsey said he would like the building to have science and health laboratories to prepare students for careers in which professionals are needed in the area.
The center is intended to help make Henry County-Martinsville the nation’s “idea center,” showing what manufacturing can become in the 21st century through enterprise, the strategy shows.
The proposal calls for the new building of approximately 70,000 square feet to be built in the Dana O. Baldwin Block bordering West Church, Market, Moss and Fayette streets. The Harvest Foundation planned to build an arena there, but that plan was put on hold so the foundation can determine what people really want to see in the block.
Dorsey said NCI needs Perriello to identify and obtain “all possible grant sources ... to build this building.”
The congressman indicated he will try and do that. He said he understands the building would cost $25 million to $35 million.
“I don’t know when we’ll get enough dollars to put that golden shovel in the ground, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later,” Perriello said.
NCI now occupies space in three buildings uptown. Two are near the old courthouse and one is on East Church Street.
Local leaders have envisioned the institute incorporating its campus further into the central business district.
However, “if we can build something that feels like a campus and looks like a campus,” Perriello said, “... it will help put NCI in the best position possible to make its case” to the state for evolving into a university, particularly if the curriculum can continue to expand.
Providing funds toward that effort may be the best way for federal officials to get involved in the process, he indicated, because the federal government cannot dictate what a state does with its higher education institutions.
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