Region hard-hit by textile, furniture losses seeks a four-year college

October 28, 2004

Daily Press/AP 


Associated Press Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- Martinsville Vice Mayor Kimble Reynolds Jr. wants a better future for the young people he sees at the local car washes, "polishing on the new ride as if it was the Hope Diamond."

The car wash is a symbol of where many of the area's young adults are headed, Reynolds said, because they haven't been able to see the need to attend college.

"Why? Because he or she was just following the family cycle _ go to high school, possibly graduate, get a job at one of the local factories, buy a new car, find a spouse, have children and prepare them to perpetuate the cycle," Reynolds said.

Reynolds was among the speakers Thursday urging Virginia's Council of Higher Education to support the creation of a four-year college to boost the economic prospects of the Martinsville and Henry County area, which has seen unemployment soar to more than 15 percent with the departure of textile and furniture industries that once made the area prosperous.

Building a college in that part of southern Virginia would also raise the education level, and thus the expectations for a better future for those who live there, the speakers said.

Thursday's hearing was the last of three conducted by the council, which is considering two different proposals for establishing a four-year college in the region. It must make its recommendations to the General Assembly by Jan. 12.

One proposal, by The Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont, would create the New College of Virginia. The school would offer a 28-month, 120-hour undergraduate degree, which would include internships at local industries.

The Harvest Foundation, a philanthropic group created after proceeds from the sale of a local hospital were designated to improve the area's quality of life, approved a $50 million challenge grant to Virginia on the condition that the state establish a four-year public college in the area.

A Martinsville businessman, George W. Lester, on Thursday pledged that his company would donate a 185,000-square-foot building that formerly was occupied by textile manufacturer Tultex Corp. to the New College of Virginia. He also pledged $250,000 for the school's endowment when it is accredited.

The other, more traditional, educational model would involve a partnership between Martinsville's Patrick Henry Community College, and Longwood and Old Dominion universities. Students would get a two-year degree at Patrick Henry, then transfer to the four-year schools.

Officials supporting the latter measure didn't speak in Richmond. But at a public hearing Wednesday in Martinsville, Longwood officials said the three schools are already accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the new institution could "be here and be ready" by the fall of 2005.

Virginia's most recently established four-year school is Christopher Newport College, founded in 1971 from a former two-year branch of the College of William and Mary. It became Christopher Newport University in 1992.

The heads of the Bassett and Stanley furniture companies cited the pressures of global competition as the main reason formerly thriving businesses have had to close or cut back operations. A new college would give local residents a chance to become qualified to work at the technical and other jobs that require higher skill levels.

A Henry County minister, the Rev. John Tinsley, said a new college would help lift up the area's low-income and black residents, who used to be able to get jobs at the local furniture and textile plants--but the factory system is no longer available.

"They are not lazy or shiftless," he said. "They simply need the opportunity to develop their innate skills."


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