By Staff Reports
The expansion of Patrick Henry Community College’s campus in Stuart was hailed as an investment in the future of Patrick County at a ribbon cutting ceremony held Tuesday.
“Community colleges are on the front lines of higher education; getting our students to work is our goal,” PHCC President Dr. Angeline Godwin said. “PHCC has been working closely with the town of Stuart over the past few years to secure the new facility to better serve the potential students in Patrick County.”
Former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles said the current expansion will offer educational and workforce training programs to local residents.
“The grand opening of the new and expanded community college complex here in Stuart, a much needed– and long-awaited– development in a county that can use all the help it can get– and the help today is in the form of college education and workforce training,” Baliles said at the ceremony. “It’s been a long-time coming.”
He explained that during the 1990s, he and former Del. Barnie Day worked to get a small presence of a community college established in Patrick County.
“It offered little in the way of academic offerings, but it was the acorn, that over time, began to look like the proverbial young oak tree — programs were slightly enlarged, and the county in 1997 generously provided space in the Patrick County Community Building, within sight of where we stand now,” he said.
After the 2001 U.S. Census data were released, it showed Patrick County near the bottom of the state’s educational rankings,” Baliles said.
“It was in that environment that the Patrick County Educational Foundation was formed in 2001. Former residents of the county, along with local civic and governmental leaders, established an education foundation with a 10-year goal to bring this county from the bottom of state education rankings to one of the top five of the 50 rural counties of the Commonwealth. It was a tall order,” he added.
The foundation was not created as an operational organization, Baliles said. “We did not see ourselves as absorbing the local government’s educational responsibilities. Instead, we viewed ourselves as a ‘think tank’ that would research, reflect and suggest approaches that would, over some period of time, elevate the county’s educational attainment levels, and then leave the programs for local officials to pick up and continue, if desired,” he said.
“We hired a staff of five or six educators, established a thriving GED program for adults, brought in the recognized College Access organization for high school students, and developed some initial work force programs in computer literacy, hospitality, and tourism and some health care initiatives. We sought financial support from many sources: from personal and corporate donors all across this Commonwealth. We also received some support from federal and state sources,” Baliles said.
Those efforts paid off, Baliles said, adding that within five years, “Patrick was in the top five of Virginia’s top 50 rural counties of students bound for college, of adults with a high school diploma or GED diploma,” Baliles said.
Later, the Patrick County Education Board “took some time off to think about the next ‘big idea’ that we could bring to the county in a meaningful way. We recognized that educational progress is rarely accomplished in revolutionary steps; it is made in incremental steps, the result of focus, discipline and elevated aspirations for the future,” Baliles said.
To make a long story short, “we locked in on the Patrick Henry Community College as our ‘big idea,’ and on the vacant Food Lion building in Stuart as the venue. That was about 2014 or 2015, roughly five years ago,” Baliles said, crediting Godwin and Dr. Greg Hodges, vice president and executive director of the Patrick County Education Foundation.
“The meetings and calls with our board were many, some of them quite long, but patience and persistence paid off,” Baliles said.
He added that the Town of Stuart was the ‘saving grace’ when it purchased the former Food Lion building and negotiated to lease some space to PHCC. The space “is ideal for providing training, and certified credentials that are readily and eagerly accepted by employers looking for trained and qualified personnel,” Baliles said, adding that he hopes residents “will fill the classrooms, for the Patrick County Education Foundation believes that as education goes here, the future of those place many call home.”
Robin Sullenberger, who was the keynote speaker at the event, talked about his experiences working in and with rural communities, and how PHCC’s new facility will make the possibility of educational enlightenment easier to achieve for Patrick County natives, who now may avoid up to an hour commute one-way from outlying areas in the county.
He praised those involved in bringing the PHCC expansion project to fruition, and added that “nothing happens in rural areas without strong leadership.”
Del. Charles Poindexter, as well as officials from Patrick County, the Town of Stuart and others also attended the ceremony.