Carrier: Ex-Tultex building could house college classes

December 1, 2004

Bulletin Staff Writer

A building in the former Tultex manufacturing complex on Commonwealth Boulevard could be converted into an educational facility immediately.

That was the observation of Dr. Ronald Carrier Tuesday following his initial tour of the 185,000-square-foot, four-story building that fronts Franklin Street. "I feel comfortable that if we wanted to offer classes this summer, we could move classroom material in here and start," he said.

Carrier heads local efforts to develop and launch the New College of Virginia (NCV), a proposed state college to be located in Martinsville and Henry County. Carrier was given a tour of the building by George Lester, president and chief executive officer of The Lester Development Corp., which owns the complex.

Lester and his company offered to donate the building to Carrier and the NCV planning organization in October, during the last of three public hearings by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) on establishing a baccalaureate-level institution in Southside.

Also at that time, Lester personally pledged a $250,000 endowment for NCV once the school becomes accredited.

As Carrier and Lester toured the brightly painted, carpeted interior of the building, Carrier envisioned possible uses: "This would be great for classrooms. You could put an extensive lab in here. This would make a great lecture hall."

Originally a cotton mill, the building and its aged exterior belies its modernity, both men observed. Having served as executive-level offices for Tultex housing such departments as payroll, accounting, sales and marketing, as well as manufacturing, the building is air conditioned and equipped with telephone, high-speed Internet and teleconferencing capabilities, said Lester.

That, along with the upgrades made by the Lester Group since acquiring the property, make it a great place for the college, Carrier said. Although the proposed NCV's current governing board, The Harvest Foundation, will have to vote on whether to accept the building, "there is no question it will have a role and a place" in the development of the school, Carrier said.

About 2,500 Tultex employees worked in the building in the 1970s and '80s, said Lester. More recently, he said, the building held the annual trade show and a health and dental clinic.

Carrier said he and his staff have employed Urban Design, an architectural firm from Pittsburgh, to look over the building, vacant buildings in uptown Martinsville, and a $1 million, 100-acre donation off U.S. 58 offered by developers Bill Adkins and Earl Greene. All would be considered in the college's need for buildings with space for 1,000 or more students, easy conversion to classrooms, labs and dormitories, and cost-effective upgrades to cutting edge telecommunications.

The firm also is expected to recommend possible state and federal resources to finance the project, Carrier said.

Carrier said he is looking at using existing buildings for NCV because he wants the college to be a catalyst for improving the community's appearance and infrastructure.

Lester said his corporation acquired the Commonwealth Boulevard complex in 2001 following the bankruptcy and closing of Tultex.

With water and electrical lines being disconnected and creditors hauling off equipment and machinery, "there was a lot of chaos surrounding the property," he recalled. "We saw the complex as a bright economic asset for the community or a bottomless pit for drug dealing, vandalism and other crime if left abandoned."

Lester said he will continue with upgrades to the complex and also plans to move his company's corporate offices from Lester Building Supply on Liberty Street into a building next to Tultex, he said.

"This is a giant step forward for the college," said Carrier of the donation. "It is not only a great building, but an opportunity to send a message that the college should be funded" by the state.

Carrier said he has been talking with government officials in Richmond, and that he and his staff have submitted a proposed budget to the state Secretary of Education Belle Wheelan for possible inclusion in the 2005 biennial budget of Gov. Mark Warner.

The proposed budget calls for a college funding of $1.5 million over the balance of this fiscal year and $3 million for fiscal year 2005-2006, Carrier said, adding that NCV plans to start operating in 2006.

In legislation sponsored by Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, SCHEV was commissioned during this year's General Assembly session to look into establishing a state college in the area.

SCHEV is expected to give a favorable report to the governor and legislators on the idea of a college, said Carrier, although he declined to speculate on any specific recommendations by the agency.

Carrier and his staff also have scheduled a seminar with Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in January to discuss accreditation, he said.

Although a few colleges and universities were established in Virginia from branch colleges, no stand-alone college has been created since 1908, Carrier said. However, a stand-alone college "combining the best of a liberal arts education with business and technology is an idea whose time has come," he added.


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