NCI seen as key to uptown efforts

November 16, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The New College Institute (NCI) is an important part of efforts to revitalize uptown, according to city officials and community leaders.

As NCI has added degree programs and its student population has grown, it has expanded into three buildings uptown. People have noticed that growth, and it has helped them see that progress is occurring, according to Jeffrey Mansour, senior program officer for The Harvest Foundation.

He called NCI “a catalyst” for revitalizing uptown.

Due to NCI’s presence, the district has “a new identity,” said Lee Probst, executive director of the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association.

As a result, how the institute evolves will greatly influence how uptown evolves, said Wayne Knox, the city’s director of community development.

NCI’s administration is in the Pythian Building on Jones Street. Classrooms and offices are in a former furniture store building on Franklin Street and on upper floors of Jefferson Plaza on East Church Street. Both buildings were renovated to accommodate the institute.

Because it occupies three buildings on different streets, NCI is “integrated uptown” and has made itself part of the district’s identity, Mansour said.

That, he said, is unlike many institutions of higher education that are “off secluded someplace away from the urban center” of their localities and, in turn, seem like separate communities.

NCI educated 347 students during the past academic year and expects to have at least 400 students in 2009-10, officials have said. Most students attend classes late in the day and at night, after most people who work uptown have gone home.

Executive Director Barry Dorsey said NCI has become “an economic engine” for the central business district. For instance, he said the owner of a nearby coffee shop has told him that the restaurant often is full of students around NCI class times.

The institute provides local access to courses needed to complete certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees offered by universities statewide. In the 2012-13 school year, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia will decide whether to let NCI evolve into a branch campus of a university or — what local leaders are hoping for — a university itself.

If one of those options happens, dormitories and other types of housing will be needed for students and professors because many will want to live and do business near the institute, Probst said.

Uptown also likely would attract students from Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) who want to live near other students, regardless of where they go to school, Mansour said.

Kris Landrum, PHCC’s public relations director, did not know if any students at the college have expressed interest in living uptown.

Still, “that’s a possibility,” Landrum said. She noted that PHCC is attracting students from out of town for athletics and unique educational programs, including motorsports, and those students need housing.

Stores and restaurants tend to locate where there is an ample supply of potential customers, and those businesses then are likely to attract others, Probst said.

NCI may play a role in attracting such businesses, Mansour said, because a community must “have an educated work force attractive to entrepreneurs” who will start those businesses.

Mansour said other communities have successfully revitalized their central business districts without a major catalyst such as NCI. But “our chances of success will be tremendously increased” due to its presence, he said.

Frankly, “I’m afraid to think what might happen” uptown if NCI does not evolve into some type of university, Probst said.

But “obviously, we’re only one piece” of the revitalization pie, Dorsey said.

Knox said that along with NCI, other attractions such as Studio 107 and the Southern Virginia Artisan Center are making uptown a unique destination.


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