tanding on an isolated stretch of shoreline, Ernie Marshburn gazes across Currituck Sound and imagines a bridge emerging from the shore near Coinjock and stretching ribbon-like for seven miles across the sound to the Outer Banks. If such a bridge existed it would be a huge boost to tourism in the northern coastal counties and a life-saving evacuation route during hurricanes.
The proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge that Marshburn is contemplating has been debated for years but gained renewed life with backing from the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which will finance it as a toll road. East Carolina recently was awarded a contract by the state Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority to produce the final studies of the exact route of the bridge and how it will impact the region socially, environmentally and economically. Marshburn and nine of his colleagues will spend three years producing that research.
It’s becoming common to see East Carolina people like Marshburn directly engaged in economic development projects like this. Reaching out to the region, ECU people are providing strategic planning to local governments, finding grant money for civic improvements and helping towns hit by factory closings to get back on their feet. They’re building bridges, too.
ast Carolina has a solid history of supporting economic development, long known for being only a phone call away when help was needed. But ECU isn’t sitting by the phone any longer. The mission now is to get off campus and become actively engaged in the crucial work of creating new jobs and opportunities across the region.
Behind this shift in thinking is a realization that the state’s public universities possess unique resources that make them valuable partners in North Carolina’s concerted efforts to grow the economy and generate new jobs. President Erskine Bowles set the university on this new course in his inaugural address last year. “We must better align our curriculum with the changing needs of business and emerging industries,” he said then. “We must find better ways to share and apply the technologies developed on our campuses, and we must help supply the expertise communities need to adapt to this global economy.” The UNC board of governors responded by adding economic development as a core mission of the university system.
East Carolina has embraced this directive with gusto. Economic development is a priority in a new five-point mission statement adopted by the Board of Trustees. “We wanted to make a statement that economic development has to be a part of everything we do,” Chancellor Steve Ballard said. Economic development, he added, “must define the soul of a university. It must define our success.”
That’s music to the ears of economic development professionals like Albert Delia, president of North Carolina’s Eastern Region, the state-local partnership serving the 13-county region around Kinston. “Just having a university in your area is a plus to begin with because it speaks directly to the quality of life that you have to offer. But when a school like ECU commits to do more, to become actively engaged in the work that we do, to put its considerable resources on the table, that’s very encouraging for the economic future of eastern North Carolina.” Charles Hayes ’72 ’74, a member of the UNC Board of Governors and president of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, which serves the Triangle region, said universities can contribute a unique asset to economic development efforts. “We have some of the best minds in the world in our universities. So when I can tell a client, ‘there’s a professor at East Carolina who literally wrote the book about the problem you’re having, and he’s willing to help you,’ that’s powerful stuff.”
An ace in the hole
“Their first hires will be our graduates. Our main goal is for our students to get a good
job right out of college, hopefully right here
in eastern North Carolina.”
-- Paul Kauffman,
chair of the Engineering Department,
at the new CMI Plastics plant in Pitt County
Wanda Yuhas, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission, knew the Greenville area was one of several locations being considered this spring as the new home of CMI Plastics, a New Jersey packaging company. She knew she needed an ace in the hole that would make Pitt County stand out in the multistate competition for the 165 high-paying jobs the plant would create. She picked up the phone and called Paul Kauffman (left
), chair of ECU’s Department of Engineering.
“She asked if I would go on a trip with her and several other folks to talk with the people up there about how East Carolina could help them solve a big problem,” Kauffman recalled. “I said sure, I’d be happy to help.”
Here was the problem: “They needed 70,000 square feet of manufacturing space to function like 100,000 square feet so they could accommodate future business growth without expanding the plant they would build now,” Yuhas said. While the bevy of state, county and local officials lobbied CMI executives at the company’s New Jersey offices, “Paul talked with their engineers about how they produced their products and how ECU could partner with them to achieve their goals.
“I don’t know if that was the difference that swayed their decision,” Yuhas continued, “but it was just a few days later that CMI announced it had picked Pitt County over the other locations it was considering. Look, this saved them 30 percent off their construction costs, so I know they placed a lot of value in having the university as a partner, not only now but in the future because ECU will tailor some of its engineering courses to meet the specific workforce needs of this company.”
This wasn’t the first time Yuhas had called the campus for help. “Economic development is new for most universities but ECU was involved in this long before it became a buzzword,” she said. “For years, if we needed an expert, if we needed somebody to sit in with a client, we turned to them. The university has always been very helpful to us. CMI is just the most recent and most tangible example.”
Why did Kauffman volunteer his expertise? “Their first hires will be our graduates. Our main goal is for our students to get a good job right out of college, hopefully right here in eastern North Carolina.”
A similar scenario unfolded last year when state economic development officials learned that a Virginia defense contractor, Defense Holdings Inc., was considering expanding at a new site. Meetings were hastily arranged, including one on campus at which several professors discussed ways the university could partner with the company to win federal Small Business Technology Transfer grants. Impressed, DHI soon announced that it had chosen a site in nearby Jones County as the location of its news Operations and Technology Development Center.
Greg Bender, DHI’s chief engineer and director of technology transfer, said he was impressed by ECU’s familiarity with the military, which is one of the company’s most important clients. “I came to North Carolina and looked at how the state and UNC system was becoming very proactive in partnering with the private sector. North Carolina in my mind has always been a leader in this and East Carolina is a great anchor for that part of the state. We look forward to our partnership with ECU.” The bridge moves forward
Estimates are that the Mid-Currituck Bridge would cost anywhere from $345 million to $649 million to build, including improvements to connecting roads at each end. Plans are for construction to begin in 2010 and be completed in 2013.
Advocates say the bridge is sorely needed to relieve congestion on the Wright Memorial Bridge, where traffic backs up for miles during the peak tourism season. Estimates are that it would shave at least an hour off the time required for tourists coming from the Northeast to get to their destinations. Working with Marshburn on the Currituck Bridge project is Evelyn Brown, a professor of engineering who is project manager.
Also on the team are faculty and students from the engineering and geography departments as well as the College of Business. Kauffmann is working on the traffic study with faculty members B.J. Kim, Erol Ozan and Richard Monroe.
They will assess how new traffic patterns caused by the bridge would impact development in the area. They also will attempt to determine what type of bridge—two-lane, three-lane, etc.—would produce the optimal balance between cost and performance.
Geography professor Amy Blizzard is conducting a natural resource impact study with faculty members Dan Marcucci, Karen Mulcachy and student Katerine Ball. Business professor Jim Kleckley is conducting an economic impact assessment with retired business faculty member Louis “Buddy” Zincone and ECU student Chris Young. Chancellors set the tone
While all 16 of the public universities now are expected to join North Carolina’s economic development team, the onus falls more heavily on the five schools located in the state’s rural areas because that’s where the need for new jobs and investment is greatest. And expectations seem to be highest for the contributions that East Carolina can make because it is by far the largest of the five.
“Rural North Carolina expects [UNC campuses] to be big players in the economy. They already are,” said Billy Ray Hall, president of the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh. He stressed it would be up to the chancellors at each campus to set the tone. “All those years that he was governor, Jim Hunt was famous for taking the time to meet with industrial prospects, shake some hands and say how he was looking forward to working with them once they moved here. I think our chancellors would do well to follow that example.”
Hayes agreed. “If I am recruiting a business and we’re going to have the guy meet some local officials, and if the chancellor takes the time to meet with the guy, tells him our university stands ready to help you in any way we can, that sends a strong message. Is that helpful? Yes. Should [chancellors] do that? Yes.”
Ballard says he is willing to make time to meet with industrial prospects. “When the opportunity presents itself, I will be there.” He stressed that this is not a change in direction for East Carolina. “Almost everything we do is focused on improving the quality of life in the region we serve. We graduate doctors, nurses and other health care people who immediately have a positive impact on the quality of life in eastern North Carolina. Our teachers are out there improving the schools in those communities. We’re also concentrating on workforce preparedness because if we’re not focusing on that, then our students won’t have the skills they need to succeed. We can prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, but what it they all leave and go somewhere else because there just aren’t opportunities here? If we work on the other strategic goals, they will stay or come back.”
Ballard also said he isn’t having to twist arms to get the campus to go along. “I don’t have to communicate to people here that economic development is our mission. The 100-year legacy of ECU is to serve. That is real here.”