09/24/12 — MOC weighs moving some facilities downtown

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MOC weighs moving some facilities downtown

By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 24, 2012 1:46 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- As Mount Olive College looks to expand its program offerings, and its student population, its need for additional space will grow as well. Town officials hope some of that growth will find its way downtown.

Formal talks about such a possibility have yet to take place. However, there have been some discussions about converting the old downtown Center Theater building into the home of the college's art department and/or a business incubator for the college's business students.

Such a move, along with a planned new and larger regional Steele Memorial Library on West Main Street, has local officials excited over the prospect of a downtown resurgence.

In some cases, it would be advantageous to have a downtown presence, said Dr. Phillip Kerstetter, the college's president.

Yet, he has been hesitant to talk about the particulars of the college's interest in downtown because of a lack of specifics.

Also, the college first needs to define its needs, he said.

"Then, once we have a better sense of what we need, I think it is easier to have the conversations with the city -- this is what we are looking for, and how can we work together?" he said.

That is something Kerstetter said he wants to see happen sooner than later.

"We are not talking something that is 5 and 10 years down the road," he said. "I think we need to be more concrete in our discussions within this coming year so that we can be on the same page in terms of what we think we can be doing to mutually be helping one another."

A number of growth ideas are being floated on campus, including fine arts, he said. But, again, nothing has been decided.

"The point would be that we have the opportunity, being in a community like Mount Olive, to test out some things," Kerstetter said. "If we wanted to give our students some practical experiences in the business community there might be some small incubators that we want that are really living-learning experiences."

Town Manager Charles Brown said the town would like to see a college presence in the downtown area, but agrees with Kerstetter that for the time being it is all in the discussion stage.

"I think one of the things that everybody would love to see happen is to perhaps move some or all of the arts department at Mount Olive College," Brown said. "We would love to have them downtown -- maybe get the old theater redone for performing arts and have a presence down here with the arts department."

Another option might be a "little business incubator" where some of the business students could actually sell artwork, products from the art department or college memorabilia and in doing so, gain some practical business experience, he said.

There continues to be ongoing discussions between college and town officials about all the options, Brown said.

"Those are actually things that we have talked about -- would it make sense for a public-private partnership do something with the theater," Kerstetter said. "Would it make sense for different kinds of partnerships in terms of bringing more fine arts downtown? Those are the things we are talking about, and like anything else, the devil is in the details. We have not gotten to that point. What I am excited about though is that we have had good conversations."

Kerstetter said it is important that the college continue to strengthen its relationship with the community.

"It is a good community. One of the things that we know we want to be is good neighbors. We also know that we have responsibility, not only to grow the college, but to help grow the town. Frankly, it will be very difficult for us to grow if the town doesn't grow. It will be difficult for the town to grow if we don't grow."

Kerstetter said he has been pleased with how receptive community's leaders have been.

"We hope people come out to our various sporting events and our fine arts presentations. Those are the things in which we hope the campus community and the town community will see as some real assets to the quality of life that happens here."

The regional library is going to have large impact on the downtown area, he said.

"We are looking at some ways that we can have a major impact as well," he said.

There is still work to be done before the meetings become more formalized, Kerstetter said. It depends on the college being able to articulate its needs, he said.

"It is kind of informal right now, although we do have the (state) Division of Community Assistance from the Department of Commerce, the same folks who did our land use plan," Brown said. "We asked the (town) board when they approved the motion to approve the land use in that we wanted to see that thing be a living document. We didn't want it to sit on a shelf.

"So what we are trying to do there is to promote and implement some of the things that are in that land use plan. That is one of the things in there, to get more of a presence downtown of the college. That is a medium-range goal certainly of the town. I think the college would look on that favorably, too."

Also being looked at is possible funding assistance, he said.

"Grant opportunities, we may have some facilities downtown that we could work out something on," Brown said. "We are really not to the point now to say this is what we are going to try and do. We are still just in the discussion stages about it.

"I don't want people to think that we are on the verge of moving part of Mount Olive College down here. We are just thinking about ways to enhance downtown, and give the college a presence down here because the college is an very important part of this town."