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Former chancellor on residence: It breaks your heart to let it go

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The Dail House, former residence of ECU chancellors on East Fifth Street in Greenville, i shown in September 2017.

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Dail House, residence of ECU chancellors on East Fifth Street in Greenville, has been a wonderful asset for the university and people of the the neighborhood it served, but the time has come for a new home to represent future generations of leadership, one former ECU chancellor said Friday.

Steve Ballard, who served as East Carolina University chancellor for 12 years before retiring to a assume a professor’s role, made that evaluation after learning this week that the ECU Foundation has secured a contract to purchase a home located on five acres in the exclusive Star Hill Farm west of campus. The asking price is $1.3 million.

There has been little debate that the 97-year-old historic Dail House had been worn out by its previous residents and the thousands of guests it hosted over those decades. Other challenges in the neighborhood have compounded the issue, and solving the problem has been an administrative challenge, Ballard said.

“Throughout my 12 years, at least three Board of Trustees committees evaluated the question of where the ECU chancellor should live,” he said. 

Ballard, his wife, Nancy, and his chief of staff met on more than one occasion with representatives from the Tar River University Neighborhood Association to listen and discuss the matter of an appropriate place for housing the university chancellor. 

“I don’t remember ever finding a simple answer to that question because there are no simple answers to it,” Ballard said. “But I do know that many options (other possible locations) were thoroughly evaluated, and Nancy and I visited most of them.

TRUNA residents strongly preferred that that chancellor stay in the Dail House as part of the neighborhood’s identity, but that became more tenuous over the last five years they were there, he said.

“We were honored to live in the Dail House,” Ballard said. “It is a part of the history of ECU and there were so many wonderful things about it, we never demanded to live somewhere else. It was a beautiful house in many ways and quite comfortable for us, but there also were some great challenges to living there. It was not an easy place to live, particularly during their last five years in the home. There were no aspects of privacy for us and our children, and we got increasingly concerned about noise and safety issues over time.”

Ballard and his wife, trustees, ECU Foundation members and Board of Visitors members all found issues with the house as a chancellor’s residence, Ballard said. Absence of privacy for their children and family, shootings in the neighborhood, downtown bar traffic and similar issues had their effect, he said. There also were serious issues with the building’s integrity.

“Because it’s so old,” he said. “Houses like that don’t last that long unless they have funds put into them to make them livable.”

Other issues identified by facilities staff and the trustees included ADA accessibility that was never addressed because of the costs, parking problems and inadequate kitchen facilities for events at the residence, Ballard said.

“They were more than ‘challenged’ on their ability to serve large gatherings out of that small and under-equipped kitchen,” Ballard said.

ADA accessibility also was a big issue, he said.

Ballard did not participate in the process of evaluating what to do about the residence moving forward, based on the economic and planning complexities of the problem and his belief that the trustees should manage the question of where the next chancellor and future chancellors should live, he said.

“I do remember that many people, including the media, asked me whether it was time to change the chancellor’s residence,” Ballard said. “I think I answered honestly that, yes, now is the time to make that decision; when one chancellor moves out and you know you have problems and emerging costs, now is the time to make that decision.”

The question of the distance of the new chancellor’s residence from the main campus should be an important consideration for the university, but not necessarily a prohibitive factor, Ballard said.

“One of the board’s committees took Nancy and me to see five houses that were within a few blocks of the campus, and every one had major liabilities that the board believed made them an unfit residence,” he said. “In the best of worlds, I agree that the chancellor should live very close to campus, but that should not be the only factor by any means. Safety, security, parking, a place to entertain and many other factors play a part.”

Ballard said he has no knowledge of how many people within the university’s governance system were involved in discussions about how the purchase of new residence should be handled, but said he has confidence in the ability of Rick Niswander, vice-chancellor for Finance and Administration, Chris Dyba, associate vice-chancellor for advancement and ECU Foundation president, to evaluate the soundness of the ECU Foundation’s decision to purchase the house in the Star Hill Farm neighborhood and manage its upkeep costs.

“The foundation was involved in almost everything we did that involved real estate,” he said. “I think that’s the appropriate mechanism to buy a house or do a lot of the evaluation.”

Ballard said the differences of position expressed among alumni on the issue of the chancellor’s residence is appropriate and to be expected.

“The residence is an important symbolic part of the university, so I think you want people to be engaged and have opinions,” Ballard said. “What’s happening now certainly happened several times during the 12 years we were there. We did all we could to listen, and we said several times that we wanted to stay in the Dail House as long as we were chancellor. However, when we left in July 2016, I believed that house had reached the end of its lifetime and a solution had to be found.”

“It’s like having a great car that won’t start after 15 years. It breaks your heart to let it go and nobody around you wants you to let it go, but at some point, you just can’t keep fixing the thing,” Ballard said. “I hope that no matter what happens in the future, the Dail House will remain a part of the ECU campus, but I know nothing about what’s required for its upkeep. Those are big issues.”

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.

 

 

 

 

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