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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 August 26 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Anchoring A Revival

C   O   V   E   R     S   T   O   R   Y 

Anchoring
A Revival
New College Campuses Underscore
Economic Development Mission

By Paul Bradley

PORTSMOUTH, Va — Cruise along a stretch of Victory Boulevard in this city in the southeastern corner of Virginia and many of the signs of an urban area in economic distress are unavoidable.

Vacant lots and abandoned buildings line the thoroughfare, competing for attention with fast food joints and used car lots. There’s not even a big-box store in sight.

But just a short distance away, near a golf course and a new condo complex, a new community college campus provides both a sharp contrast from Victory Boulevard and a ray of hope for the future. Tidewater Community College’s $65 million Fred W. Beazley Portsmouth Campus, which welcomed more than 11,000 students when it opened its doors for its first full academic year Aug. 19, is poised to play a central role in the economic revival of the city and the region.

Call it a 21st Century version of the anchor store, where the available commodities are education and job training instead of clothing and housewares.

As the 2010-11 academic year gets under way, new community college campuses like TCC and Louisiana Delta Community College — which opened its own new campus this month in Monroe, La. — stand out as examples of how community colleges are embracing a new mission beyond providing a path to a bachelor’s degree and job training.

They are also being counted upon to help lift their host communities out of their economic doldrums, to be central pillars in spurring economic activity for the benefit of their regions.

“There is an expectation for not just community colleges, but higher education in general, to be part of the solution, be a partner in pure economic development — not just workforce development, but economic development,” said TCC President Deborah M. DiCroce.

“I think there is an expectation now that we are kind of an anchor store to jumpstart development,” she said.

Louisiana Delta Community College Chancellor Luke P. Robins agrees.

“Economic development really is a critical piece of our mission,” he said. “We are in the situation of being a poor part of a poor state. The college really is a vehicle to spur economic development, to develop the skilled workforce that is key to the region’s future.”

*****

That Portsmouth is a city in need of economic help is undeniable, and demographic data only confirms that the city is a place looking for a better day. The unemployment rate in the city has been climbing since 2008 and is now about 9 percent; about 18 percent of the city’s 100,000 residents live below the poverty level, compared to about 10 percent for the rest of Virginia. Only about 14 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or better, compared to 24 percent for the country as a whole.

The new campus has been in the planning stages for more than a decade, and its offerings are closely aligned to needs of the regional economy. Portsmouth is home to the country’s oldest Navy hospital and other health care facilities, and the Hampton Roads region projects it will need 2,380 new and registered nurses over the next five years. Thus TCC’s new Beazley College of Nursing doubles the college’s capacity for nursing students, and is projected to graduate 200 students a year within two years.

A short distance from the campus is the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where Navy ships are repaired and modernized and where about 10,000 people work. The new campus doubles the college’s capacity to train students in welding classes, a critical skill in maritime, construction and transportation industries, and hosts a sophisticated computer-assisted drafting program.

“The new Portsmouth campus represents a critical investment in the region’s economic future,” DiCroce said. “The campus exemplifies the best in successful partnering, where strategic planning and long-range vision will benefit tens of thousands of citizens and hundreds of employers across the region.”

“While we couldn’t have predicted a decade ago this ‘perfect storm’ of enrollment surge and economic need, we envisioned a campus where strategic planning and long-range vision would benefit the region.”

The Portsmouth Partnership, a non-profit group of city leaders dedicated to promoting the region’s economic growth and educational opportunities, sees the new campus as a critical piece of the area’s economic puzzle.

“To have an institution like this available in Hampton Roads is really wonderful for students and employers alike,” said David Tynch, a member of the group’s Board of Directors. “To have a facility like this open during these challenging economic times is simply a godsend. This clearly took an incredible amount of vision and forward thinking on the part of TCC, and the economy of the entire region stands to benefit.”

The new campus is made up of four two-story buildings providing 1,000 computers, 25 classrooms, 11 instructional computer labs, 20 instructional labs for disciplines such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, welding and air conditioning; and four human-patient simulator labs for nursing.

But the college is more than a place for the latest technological bells and whistles. The new campus also represented a rare opportunity for educators: the chance to combine best educational practices and the latest technological tools into a brand-new facility rather than adapting them to an existing one.

For Portsmouth campus Provost Terry L. Jones, planning the campus was the capstone on an educational career than has spanned almost four decades. In designing the campus, Jones said he adhered to the concept of the “learning college,” which places learning first and provides educational experiences for learners anyway, anyplace, anytime. The college moved from the traditional educational hierarchy to a flattened structure that stresses collaborative learning inside and outside the classroom.

The “learning college” concept is infused into the design of the new campus, Jones said. Its design borrows liberally from other community colleges that have embraced the concept.

Collaboration, simulation and the use of technology are the real-life manifestations of the concept. Anatomy and physiology labs have ceiling cameras that beam images of cadaver work for all in the class to see; The business program space, called “The Firm” is designed like a real-life office with cubicles and desktops linked to the instructor’s station.

“We were not just relocating the college,” Jones said. “We were reinventing it. We wanted to promote learning anywhere on campus. Everything we did, we asked ‘how does that promote learning?’”

Said DiCroce: “In some ways I view that campus as kind of an experiment, almost. It’s a living laboratory unto itself on how we learn, with all the distinguishing features of community college students in how they learn. It would be an interesting case study to take over the next five years.”

******

In Louisiana, educators are conducting an experiment of their own. The state is a relative newcomer to the community college movement; The Louisiana Technical and Community College System was created in 1998. But in a sign of progress, 14 of the state’s technical and community colleges ranked among the nation’s top 100 associate degree producers during the
2008-09 academic year, according to a Community College Week analysis.

When the new $45 million campus of Louisiana Delta Community College was dedicated, it provided the college with its first permanent home since it opened in 2001. It previously occupied leased or borrowed space.

“It’s great to be here in this state-of-the- art campus,” Robins said. “But there are very high expectations of this campus, and our challenge is to meet those expectations.”

Those expectations include aiding an area that is characterized by stubborn generational poverty. The median household income in the city is about $26,000; 26.3 percent families and 32.3 percent of the population live below the poverty line, according to census information.

Delta’s new campus is made up of two buildings. The four-story, 180,000-square-foot Louisiana Purchase building includes a student success center, library, coffee shop, child care center, book store, coffee shop, library, classrooms, labs and administrative offices and other amenities. The campus’ two-story, 28,000-square-foot Advanced Technology Center houses the college’s workforce training facility, including three high bays that can be reconfigured to meet various training programs.

During the dedication of the campus, Gov. Bobby Jindal said the Delta and other community colleges are central to the state’s economic revitalization efforts. The college has been growing steadily since its inception, and now enrolls about 2,000 full-time students.

“Today’s ribbon-cutting is about more than just celebrating bricks and mortar,” he said. “What happens inside the walls of these new buildings will shape the future of our workforce development system, but most importantly, Delta Community College will continue to help mold the lives of students who want to pursue their dreams here at home.”

Louisiana is making a concerted effort to direct more students to its community college system. About 7 in 10 Louisiana high school graduates who go to college enroll in a four-year school. But that’s changing, Robins said.

“I think there is beginning to be a shift,” he said. “We are earning a reputation as a viable educational option, especially for those who are place-bound.”

Last year, college and economic development officials were heartened by plans of the V-Vehicle Co. to build an assembly plant for low-cost, energy efficient cars in Monroe.

The project would create an estimated 1,400 jobs, but plans received a setback earlier this year when the federal Department of Energy turned down two loan applications worth $320 million. The company is planning to file a revised application.

The college’s ability to train workers is considered critical to the company’s plans, Robins said.

“They know we can produce a skilled workforce,” Robins said. “We’re well-situated to provide the kind of training they want. We want to be part of the conversation.”

******

To be sure, community colleges long have played a critical role in aiding the economies of their regions. The work of colleges has been spotlighted this year by the persistent economic recession.

But today, as never before, colleges are being relied upon to climb down from the ivory tower and get immersed in the nitty-gritty of economic development.

DiCroce said TCC and other colleges need to play their part.

“We estimate that the economic impact of the Portsmouth campus is $300 million,” she said. “But for me, the potential impact is well beyond that. It’s not a matter of build it and they will come. It’s really a matter of rolling up our sleeves and being partners in where we go from here.”

it's YOUR TURN: Share your opinion of this story with us via: 
http://ccweekblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/new-campus/ or  editor@ccweek.com

1: Do colleges have an economic development obligation?
2. What is your college doing?

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