03/18/17 — University of Mount Olive to move some offices downtown

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University of Mount Olive to move some offices downtown

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 18, 2017 11:47 PM

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University of Mount Olive President Dr. Phil Kerstetter stands in the former Southern Furniture Store in downtown Mount Olive.

MOUNT OLIVE -- The University of Mount Olive will relocate its institutional advancement offices to downtown in what used to be a furniture store.

And university President Dr. Phil Kerstetter has hinted at even more expansion projects in the future.

The university has a signed a five-year lease on the former Southern Furniture Store, 124 N. Center St., with Mayor Ray McDonald Sr., owner of the property.

At the end of the five years, the university will assume ownership of the 7,700-square-foot building.

The 17 office spaces will be occupied by alumni relations, planned giving, church relations, public relations, marketing, gift support and events services.

Demolition of the building's interior is underway, and construction is expected to be completed by the fall semester.

A Rural Economic grant of up to $200,000, which will be repaid over a 13-year period, is being used to help pay for the project.

"Part of it is just trying to find a way to make certain that people understand that the future of the university is dependent on the town, the pickle plant and Southern Bank," Kerstetter said. "And frankly, the future of the town is somewhat dependent on the university, the pickle plant, Southern Bank. We are all in this whole thing together. There is just no way of separating that, and frankly, there is no reason that we want to separate all of that.

"It is part of us all working together for the betterment of this community. Part of the thing is that we were looking at the possibility of us expanding some of our programs, and while we have a lot of acreage here on campus, sometimes it doesn't make sense to start something new."

For example, when the university knew it was going to do some expansion of its fine arts program a whole new building could have been constructed on campus, or it could have looked to see what might be available downtown, he said.

That would fill an otherwise vacant downtown building, and that is really what started a lot of this connection, he said.

The university did look at buildings downtown including the old Center Theatre. However, the building had "a lot of issues," Kerstetter said.

Engineers said they could fix anything, if the university was willing to spend the money, he said.

It was obvious it would be cost prohibitive to renovate that building, he said.

At the same time, the university had the option of looking at the old Mount Olive High School building on Wooten Street that years earlier had been converted into apartments.

The university acquired the building that now houses 19 apartments, the music department and the Hazel Waters Kornegay Assembly Hall.

"The old high school would not only give us capacity for resident students, but also had a very, very nice auditorium down there at the Assembly Hall," Kerstetter said. "So ultimately the shift went from downtown to the high school.

"You have seen what has happened with the high school with renovations of the facilities, renovations of the Assembly Hall as well as the renovation of the downstairs for the music department."

That handled the issue for fine arts, he said.

But it did not negate the issue of seeing if there were some other ways the university could do things, Kerstetter said.

"Just being brutal, Mount Olive downtown is not the hoppingest place that we have been to in our lives," he said. "It is pretty, but from the standpoint of a destination, it is far more challenged than I would like for it to be, and that is because I have students who need to get off campus.

"I get that. It is a beautiful campus, and I like being on campus, but sometimes you have to get off."

But there are a limited amount of things to downtown, he said.

Part of that is pragmatic -- who is going to make an investment downtown, if they don't think it is going to pan out, Kerstetter said.

"So part of the thing we are looking at is if we could find some ways of driving more activity downtown with the possibilities that other people could be looking at ways of driving more activity downtown. You start getting critical mass and all of a sudden, other people are willing to make investments so to speak. But who is willing to take the first step? That is always the kicker.

"As much as we had talked about moving downtown part of it was one, was there space that was workable for us. The other things is what would we move downtown?"

The university acquired the old Steele Memorial Library building, but the building was too small, he said.

Instead, the university worked with the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists, which sponsors the university, that has relocated from Ayden to the building.

So that was kind of phase one, Kerstetter said.

The old Southern Furniture store became available and its square-footage size is similar to what the institutional advancement offices have in the Waylin Center on Michael Martin Road, he said.

As such it was a unit that could be moved intact since it does not make sense to move just two people downtown, Kerstetter said.

The move will free up space on campus and could lead to more shifting, but no decisions have been made on what that would entail, he said.

"But there are some ideas that are being generated," Kerstetter said. "For example, I am still thinking it would be great if we had some kind of movie theater or a black box type of experience downtown. I have not given up discussions about that.

"But there may be some other opportunities in which we can start expanding our presence within the overall community. It opens up all kinds of opportunities for our students and because it is opening up opportunities for our students, it's opening up opportunities for the townspeople."

It would contribute to the vibrancy of the town and university, he said.