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Virginia Technology Center Seen as Economic Hope

Virginia Technology Center Seen as Economic Hope
By Ronald Roach

Danville, Va.

In Virginia, the decline of the tobacco and the textile industries has led to hard economic times in the state’s southernmost counties known as southside Virginia. In addition to high unemployment, the largely rural region struggles with low educational attainment among its residents. Just 5 percent of Black adults and 12 percent of White adults in Danville and the surrounding Pittsylvania County, the heart of southside Virginia, have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Twenty percent of all adults in the area have less than a ninth grade education.

Nonetheless, regional leaders are placing high hopes on an $18 million academic technology center in Danville to stimulate economic development in southern Virginia. Pittsylvania County and Danville leaders are realigning their public schools and colleges to develop a local work force capable of attracting and sustaining high-tech industries. Using funds appropriated from the settlement of national tobacco lawsuits, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR), which is being constructed in Danville, will be operated jointly by three institutions: Averett University, Danville Community College and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

“The (IALR) represents a unique model for university outreach,” says Dr. Tim Franklin, IALR executive director and Virginia Tech administrator.

Franklin says the institute, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2003, will combine the structure of a regional academic center offering degree programs from state institutions and a university-managed research park. Virginia Tech provides the primary administrative, academic and research management of the IALR. The completed 90,000-square-foot institute will house traditional academic and distance-learning classrooms, research laboratories and facilities, and a conference and meeting center, according to Franklin.

“What distinguishes this academic center is that it pairs strategic research with advanced degree programs. I don’t know of any regional higher education center that has this model,” Franklin says. “The regionally based higher education centers typically deliver academic programs to students, but they don’t have research and research faculty on site.”

Concerned about inclusion, a number of Blacks in Danville and Pittsylvania County have formed the African American Advocacy Group of the IALR. With Blacks making up 33 percent of the region’s population, the advocacy group was established to promote the Black community’s participation in educational and economic programs resulting from the IALR’s development.

“We believe that it is necessary to have a mechanism in place that can communicate to the Black community how it as a community can participate and take advantage of the opportunities that the institute will bring to this area,” says Kelvin Perry, chairman of the African American Advocacy Group and president of the First State Bank in Danville.

The academic component of IALR will be structured around joint degree programs to be offered by the three schools in technology fields, including computing, Web design and information-systems technology.

Academic programs will fall under three areas: biotechnology, information technology and aerospace technology. Students will be able to transfer their credits from the community college, or from Danville-based Averett, into Virginia Tech’s graduate programs. Courses will be offered both in the classroom and online, with faculty members from each institution contributing.

Franklin says the research part of IALR will enable researchers and faculty members to provide students exposure to the research side of academic programs. For example, research tools, such as supercomputer access, will allow students to study the genomes of plants in search of new crops to help reduce the local economy’s reliance on tobacco, according to officials. Franklin envisions that the IALR would accommodate up to 30 research faculty members.

Currently, IALR officials are pursuing four distinct program areas to anchor the research arm of the institute. Those areas are polymer research, horticultural biotechnology, transport mechanics and bioinformatics, according to Franklin. The areas have been chosen for their potential in stimulating existing industry prospects and attracting new industrial investment. For example, consultants are now studying the feasibility of a state-of-the-art Polymer Processing Institute (PPI) to be based at IALR. Such an institute would add to the cluster of companies already in the Dan River region that deal with polymers, according to officials.

Instead of seeking assistance from state officials who are currently stymied by Virginia’s budget crisis, local leaders have relied upon funding the city of Danville and Pittsylvania County received from the national settlement with tobacco companies over health liability lawsuits. About $15 million of the institute’s cost will be financed with settlement funds. Virginia has set aside half of its settlement money to improve the economies of areas that have been heavily dependent on tobacco farming.

Information on the institute can be viewed at .

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