$50M challenge issued - Harvest Foundation calls for public college

January 11, 2004

Bulletin Staff Writer

The Harvest Foundation has issued a $50 million challenge to the state of Virginia to establish a new four-year public college in the Henry County-Martinsville area.

"We want to capture the imagination of the commonwealth so it will be more likely to make this a reality," said Harry Cerino, executive director of the foundation, which invests the proceeds of the sale of Memorial Health Systems in the community. "We believe a four-year public college in Martinsville and Henry County would be transformational to the community as well as have an economic benefit."

The grant requires that the college be open by January 2006 and maintained after that. Additional conditions and terms of the grant have not been set yet, Cerino said.

The grant will be called the "Harvest Challenge" and could be used for endowed chairs, buying property, renovations, dormitory and classroom construction, planning and academic scholarships, according to the foundation, whose board unanimously approved the grant Saturday.

Mike Haley, chairman of the foundation's grants committee, which will oversee the funds, said the foundation does not envision this as an expansion of Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC).

"Our dream is to create a college/university in the area that compliments the community college, because it (PHCC) serves a vital purpose," he said. "Whether it would be in downtown Martinsville and look like Chapel Hill (N.C.) or on a 2,000-acre campus (away from downtown) has yet to be determined."

The foundation is assembling an advisory committee of educators from throughout the state "to help us think this through" and define the next steps to be taken, Cerino said.

The Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed the idea of a four-year public university, and other local "political folks" also may work to advance the idea, he said.

Haley said studies have shown that there will be 60,000 students needing higher education in an "echo of the baby boom, so there is a need" for another public college or university in the state.

The foundation noted that both Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and state Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, have supported the idea recently.

"This is not our idea. ... We're saying, 'You guys got a great idea. Now here's real money and let's make it happen,'" Haley said, adding that the idea is bipartisan. "Since the idea was put in front of us to create one (university) in Southside, let's get ahead of the curve and be a positive factor."

The benefits of a college or university to the community are numerous, Haley and Cerino said.

"With education, we see a lower crime rate, we see the ability to solve problems," Haley said. Also, "there will be an economic benefit. It wasn't directed as an economic program, but how to better educate the people of Southside. The economics will follow. Wealth follows the educated and wealth flees from the uneducated."

Also, Cerino said, a university would "be a wonderful thing in terms of keeping young people here and attracting young people and providing an intellectual center. It would generate ideas and be an economic driver."

The proposed university also fits with the foundation's mission of improving the quality of life in the areas of health, education and welfare, the foundation stated in a release.

The $50 million is nearly one-third of the foundation's $167.7 million net assets as of Dec. 31, 2002, the most recent audited figure.

Both Cerino and Haley said there is enough money to honor the foundation's past and future commitments in addition to the $50 million.

"If it goes through, we still have well over $100 million," Cerino said. If 5 percent of that sum was paid out per year, that means $5 million would be invested in the foundation's priority areas of health, education and welfare, he said.

Area legislators were notified of the challenge grant Saturday morning, Cerino said.

The foundation is prohibited from lobbying, he said. "We are not very good at politics so we're issuing a challenge to the commonwealth of Virginia that we will hope will get a response," he added.


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