Nashville Star Helped N.C. College Win Bond Vote
When it comes to winning bond elections, Donald Cameron, president of Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, is a big believer in partnerships.
His aptitude at building ties to the community have drawn praise and were the focus of a Wall Street Journal article in 1996 that Cameron has framed and hanging on his office wall.
Winning the support of community leaders, Cameron believes, is paramount if college officials are to persuade voters to borrow millions of dollars, build new facilities and possibly increase their own taxes.
“You really have to have a trust relationship with the company or the person you are dealing with,” Cameron says. “You have to find out what their needs are, and how you can add value to their business.
“It’s not magical. It’s really common sense.”
But never did Cameron have a more effective partner than he did in 2000. That’s when he enlisted country singer and songwriter Larry Gatlin to support a bond issue that included $9.25 million for a seemingly far-flung idea – a school of entertainment technology, a state-of-the-art facility to train those desiring a career in the music industry.
Call it bond issue by celebrity.
The result of the effort is the college’s Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology, which offers training to aspiring musicians, engineers, sound board technicians, lighting technicians, graphic designers and the like. It opened its doors in 2004. Today, about 400 students are enrolled.
“Having Larry’s name attached to it was absolutely critical,” Cameron says.
Gatlin, along with brothers Stephen and Rudy, was one of the top acts in Nashville throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Larry Gatlin has more than 33 Top 40 singles to his credit.
Appearing at the recent conference of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, Gatlin said he agreed to support Cameron’s vision for a simple reason.
“He asked,” Gatlin recalled.
Cameron enjoys recounting how the school came to be. He says he has long been an avid country music fan. Shortly after taking the helm at Guilford 18 years ago, he came up with the idea of a school for students looking to make it in Nashville.
He says he wrote letters to artists such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, seeking their support and advice, but never mustered the nerve to mail them.
“I had no background in music,” he says. “I had it mapped out on paper, but that’s as far as it went.”
In 1998, Cameron got a chance to meet Gatlin. The musician was attending a reception at the home of his friend, Nido Qubien, president of High Point University. Cameron was also invited.
At the reception, Cameron seized his moment. He walked over to Gatlin, stuck out his hand and made his pitch. The wheels were set in motion.
“He said he thought it was a great idea and that he’d be back in North Carolina the following February and we’d talk some more about it,” Cameron says.
Cameron soon learned Gatlin had more to offer than his name. As the men talked about Cameron’s idea, he helped hone Cameron’s vision, bringing to bear his decades of experience in the music industry.
“When he came back to North Carolina, I picked him up at the airport and showed him around the campus,” he continued. “Our Hospitality Career Center was under construction, and it had a 500-seat auditorium, and I asked him if he would come back and perform when it opened and we would announce that we were forming the Larry Gatlin School of Country Music. He said he’d do the performance but then he paused and didn’t answer the second part. He said he didn’t like the term ‘country music.’ Finally, he said, ‘Don, you are thinking too small.’”
Then Gatlin offered some advice that would chart the direction of the undertaking. There was much more to the music business than Cameron understood.
“He asked me, ‘Do you have a cosmetology program? Don’t you think opera stars get made up and get their hair done before they go onstage just like Grand Ole Opry stars?’ He asked, ‘Do you have a business program? Every entertainer needs a manager and a tour manager and a merchandise manager and a business manager.’ He asked, ‘Do you have a graphic arts program? Who do you think designs CD covers and T-shirts and Web sites.”
The message was that limiting the school to country music would confine curriculum and constrain the types of students it would attract. Today, the college welcomes and nurtures all kinds of music, from country to rap to rock ‘n roll.
“I said if we can use your name, you can call it anything you want. He said, ‘You got a deal,’ and we shook hands on it,” Cameron says.
Of course, there was the matter of funding. With Gatlin’s vocal support, voters approved the facility by a healthy margin.
“The citizens of Guilford County deserve all the credit. This has truly become a community project, a team effort. The town has embraced it; the students have embraced it; Larry Gatlin has embraced it,” Cameron says.
Cameron has since proved that Guilford does not need a star to win a bond election. In May, voters approved a $79.5 million bond issue to upgrade the college’s transportation, aviation and logistics handling programs.