Mountain grown

College seeks to rebuild Southwest Virginia’s economy

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Far Southwest Virginia’s faltering economy troubled Donna Henry, chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, when she took the school’s helm in January 2013.

“When I came, it was sort of the beginning of this downward spiral,” Henry recalls. Coal was caught in what seemed to be a “perfect storm” of competition from cheap natural gas and tighter environmental regulations on the industry and its customers. Coal’s collapse, marked by mining company bankruptcies and thousands of layoffs, came a lot faster than anyone expected, she says.

Henry could see the impact at her college, where roughly half of the student body of about 2,000 comes from rural counties west of Roanoke. The families of some U.Va.-Wise students were leaving the region. Enrollment in local public schools was declining. College students were needier, and some had families who were unable to support them. This summer, the unemployment rate in Virginia’s most coal-dependent counties was running more than double the state average.

The struggling economy prompted Henry to make U.Va.-Wise’s 9-year-old economic development program a part of the chancellor’s office last fall.  Having an economic development office — uncommon for small liberal arts colleges — is one of many ways U.Va.-Wise serves the Cumberland Mountain region of Central Appalachia to which it owes its existence.

Request made in 1954
In 1954, three Wise men made a pilgrimage to Charlottesville to ask University of Virginia President Colgate W. Darden Jr. to support the creation of a university branch in their county. The closest state-supported college at the time was in Radford, a three-hour drive to the east.

The men — two lawyers and an engineering firm owner — secured Darden’s support and headed for Richmond to plead with lawmakers for the money needed to start the school. A college was about to be born.

That fall, with $5,000 in initial state funding and $6,000 in local donations, the college opened its doors to 109 area students, two-thirds of whom were Korean War veterans. The school initially was called Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia.

After 1999, in a marketing move, it became the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.  The site picked for the school was the county’s old Poor Farm, which offered a large sandstone building suitable for the first classrooms.

Since those humble beginnings, Southwest Virginia has continued to support the college. The college’s endowment stands today at roughly $85 million, which equals or exceeds that of many larger Virginia schools. Sixty percent of the endowment’s income goes toward scholarships.  That allows students who receive financial aid, 80 percent of the student body, to graduate with some of the lowest student debt in the nation. In 2014, more than half of U.Va.-Wise graduates left with no student debt, and the average debt for the remainder was $12,496.

The college has grown at an accelerating pace. Begun as a two-year institution, it awarded its first bachelor’s degrees in 1970 when enrollment was roughly 400, still almost all from the region. Full-time enrollment exceeded the 1,000 mark in 1991 and stood at 2,065 in the 2015-16 academic year. The eventual enrollment target is 2,600, Henry says. Students, many among the first in their families to attend college, now come from all around the state. All but five Virginia counties are represented, and fully a fourth of the student body calls Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads home.

New facilities
With the growing enrollment has come a campus building boom. Since 1997, 37 projects have added or renovated roughly 585,000 square feet of space at a cost of nearly $217 million in public and private money. Notable among those were: an $8.3 million health and wellness center; a 3,000-seat, $30 million convocation center; three new residence halls totaling more than $20 million; more than $23 million in science center construction and renovation; a new $9.6 million dining hall; and a new $37.2 million library that opens this fall.

The construction work — much of it done by local contractors — has provided jobs and economic activity. That represents just one of many ways the school contributes to the local economy aside from the payroll and student and school spending. For example, the David J. Prior Convocation Center, which opened in late 2011, has stimulated spending in the area by attracting visitors to various events. In the most recent fiscal year, the center hosted 1,001 events, drawing nearly 80,000 people.

A better picture of the school’s overall contribution to the area economy should be available in December when an economic-impact study of the university’s Charlottesville and Wise campuses will be published.

“U.Va.-Wise to us is an economic engine,” says Carl Snodgrass, economic development director for Wise County.  “The local impact on the economy has been pretty phenomenal.”

He speaks from experience. Snodgrass, who is the only employee in his office, welcomes help from the college through its resources and broad contacts.

The college also provides Snodgrass with an important recruiting advantage when he goes after new industry. “We tout that pretty highly,” he says. Companies today, Snodgrass notes, are looking for employees who can read, understand what they’ve read and share what they’ve learned with other employees.

Helping new businesses
The college is training a workforce now that can perform in tomorrow’s jobs, Henry says. U.Va.-Wise, she says, is still at heart a liberal arts college that teaches students to think critically, communicate well, work in teams and be lifelong learners — the kind of soft skills that Snodgrass says companies are looking for.

The college also has a business launch plan that can connect fledgling businesses with faculty, students and other resources in the region, such as civic groups, suppliers, vendors and potential customers, says Shannon Blevins, associate chancellor for economic development and community engagement. Along those lines, the college is planning a cyber-technology business accelerator for a recently donated building in St. Paul. The college is working with Mach37, a Herndon-based cybersecurity accelerator, on the project and is talking with startups about using the St. Paul facility.

If she cannot find the expertise a fledgling company needs in-house, Blevins just puts out a call to her colleagues in Virginia’s University-Based Economic Developers group. “We go to each other for resources, and we do that a lot,” she said. The close relationship with the mother institution in Charlottesville can be particularly helpful. There, Blevins found an expert in fluid dynamics for a new technology business in Wise.

U.Va.-Wise’s economic development office has pursued a variety of other strategies in concert with regional organizations. One of them is the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority (VCEDA), which has been marketing the region since 1988.
“I think [the college] is playing a very vital role in strengthening the regional effort,” says Susan Copeland, VCEDA’s marketing director. The No. 1 priority for business prospects is the quality of the workforce; so access to education is important, she said.

U.Va.-Wise doesn’t seek to duplicate existing development work in the region but to support all entities that are working for the region’s benefit, helping them find resources, expand and do their work better, Blevins says.

For example, by last fall more than 55 individual public and private entities were working on economic development in the region. “That just spoke to the sense of urgency people feel … that we’re in a challenging economic situation with the decline of coal,” Blevins says.

‘Ongoing conversation’
There was a need, Henry says, for a nonbiased party to bring public and private development organizations together to work on a strategic plan for the entire region. The college hosted a forum in May whose goal was to do just that.  People not just from

Southwest Virginia but from across the commonwealth and other states that have an interest in the region — 356 in all — attended the meeting.  “This is going to be an ongoing conversation,” Blevins says.

U.Va.-Wise is also working with the Virginia Department of Tourism and the Department of Housing and Community Development to build an entrepreneurial culture in Southwest Virginia. Before a regional strategy was agreed upon in 2012, the effort to promote entrepreneurship was fragmented.

The college was an important factor in recent successful recruitment efforts at the county’s Lonesome Pine Technology Park, including a customer-support center for TurboTax and Quickbooks and a data center providing business continuity and disaster recovery, Snodgrass says. Among other factors, including geologic stability and technological infrastructure, DP Facilities of Long Island, N.Y., cited “a technically competent labor force because of the nearby University of Virginia at Wise” when explaining its choice of the park as the location for a new 65,000-square-foot data center. U.Va.-Wise has a computer science program and offers the only undergraduate software engineering major among Virginia’s public colleges.

The college was the “dominant” reason Micronic Technologies, a startup from Northern Virginia, moved to Wise County in 2014, says company founder and CEO Karen Sorber. The support the college offered the company and its sponsorship of a $2 million grant from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission put U.Va.-Wise “square in partnership with us,” she says.

Micronic has developed a patented water treatment system that removes impurities and contaminants from any water source.  “In my case, we had the technology down but needed a lot of ancillary services the college could provide for us,” Sorber says.

The company got help from the college’s professors and interns. They, in turn, have benefited from the relationship by getting real-world experience in how businesses work, she says.

Sorber has traveled around the state this year as a member of 2016 class of Lead Virginia, a leadership training program. Through the program, she has learned about Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s interest in linking colleges with early-stage companies.

“Chancellor Henry is way ahead of the game in terms of her leadership in economic development compared with other universities in the state,” Sorber says.  “She gets it.”

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