Reaction varied on NCI plans

April 17, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The New College Institute’s (NCI) plan to construct a building in the vacant Baldwin Block uptown drew questions, compliments and criticism during a public meeting Monday night at Albert Harris Elementary School.

Tony Jones, who was among about 50 people to attend the meeting, commended NCI officials for being “very accommodating to everybody who wants to talk to you about this project.”

“You don’t see that a lot in this community,” Jones said. His remarks drew applause from others at the meeting.

Still, he voiced concerns about the proposed three-story, roughly 50,000 square-foot building, which NCI wants to erect to accommodate planned advanced manufacturing programs as well as health care programs that use high-tech equipment.

The building would have two main entrances — one facing a large courtyard near a parking lot bordering West Church and Moss streets and another along Fayette Street near a smaller courtyard. The second entrance was added to the plans last week after Jones and others voiced concerns about having the back of the building face Fayette Street.

“I want the New College to support the community it’s (the proposed building) in,” Jones said, referring to the west side.

He indicated that he thinks the building’s orientation would be dishonorable to Dr. Dana O. Baldwin, for whom the block is named. Baldwin, a physician and philanthropist who died in 1972, was a leader in the African-American community. His medical practice was on the block.

The way the soil is compacted in the block limits how the building can be built there, said NCI Executive Director William Wampler.

Space in the building would honor Baldwin and recognize the block’s history, Wampler said.

Lee Hagwood said he thinks the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI) should be involved in developing the building.

NCI officials visited FAHI to learn about the block’s history, Wampler said, adding that the institute plans to ask for area residents’ input as to how best to recognize that history inside the building.

The building would have a Grand Hall that NCI officials have said could be used for events such as musical performances, meetings and conferences.

Like elsewhere in the building, however, the hall would have technology to support academics, and NCI officials have said that academics would be the first priority for the space.

Jones asked whether people would be able to affordably rent the hall for social events such as children’s birthday parties. He said the area lacks affordable space where such events can be held.

Wampler said it has not been decided how much NCI will charge people for using the hall, but the institute would try to make it affordable to everyone.

Chris Koumparakis, who lives near Ridgeway, said he thinks NCI should use the former Globman’s building or the former American of Martinsville site, both uptown, for its new facility. The latter location would have enough space for the institute to expand in the future, he pointed out.

Wampler noted that the block was chosen largely because the city owns it and could donate it to NCI. Martinsville City Council is considering that.

The New College Foundation, NCI’s private fundraising arm, would own the building. It is a tax-exempt organization.

Therefore, the building would be of “no real economic benefit for the city,” Hagwood said.

Wampler said the education that students receive in the building should help the area lure more high-tech, high-paying manufacturers like RTI International, which he said pays salaries averaging about $35 an hour.

He added that advanced manufacturing programs would bring students who would spend money locally and that, based on figures supplied by universities that have built such buildings, construction can be expected to bring as many as 200 or more temporary jobs.

Generally, the economic impact of a college or university on the surrounding area is phenomenal, he said.

Among other comments during the meeting, local NAACP chapter President Naomi Hodge-Muse asked whether NCI would use eminent domain to acquire other properties nearby.

No, Wampler indicated.

Wampler said the institute has no plans to seek any more property, but if it was to, it probably would seek existing buildings uptown that could be easily turned into academic space.

He said no such buildings in the business district were suitable for the large industrial bays that are to be part of the proposed building.

Sarah Capps, an employee of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, recommended that the building’s offices for instructors be near areas where students congregate.

The tobacco commission is a potential source of funding for the building, which Wampler has estimated would cost $10 million to $15 million.

Capps said she attended the meeting not as a commission representative but as a citizen who is interested in plans for the building.


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