Gerlach affirms ECU's commitment to economic development
By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
The business community must advocate for ECU’s success while the university advocates for economic development in the east, the school’s interim chancellor said at a Tuesday luncheon sponsored by the Pitt-Greenville Chamber of Commerce.
About 130 people attended this month’s Power Luncheon, the first time interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach has addressed the organization in his new position.
“I don’t think the east can do well unless East Carolina University does well,” Gerlach said.
During his work as an adviser to Gov. Mike Easley and as the executive director of Golden LEAF, Gerlach said his work focused on finding jobs for people through the expansion of existing companies and attraction of new companies.
However, a new dynamic facing business is companies have jobs and are looking for people to fill the positions, he said.
Future economic development will hinge on training people to fill jobs.
Gerlach believes ECU is well positioned to meet that demand — 40 percent to 50 percent of the university's graduates say they are well-prepared for life, a higher percentage than other schools in the UNC System.
Part of meeting the demand involves getting back to basics, he said.
Getting qualified individuals in K-12 classrooms is a critical component of workforce development, Gerlach said. ECU, as a school founded to produce teachers, should renew its commitment to that important task.
ECU also must re-establish its dominance in higher education in eastern North Carolina, he said. Students in the regions are exploring more options for higher education, whether in community college or other four-year institutions.
However, in the lifelong learning environment that is a growing part of today’s workforce, the university can meet the needs of people who want more education or credentials than they already have, he said.
Gerlach proclaimed this as the year of the transfer. Not only will ECU work on recruiting graduates of the state’s community college system but individuals who attended college but didn’t complete their degrees.
The school also has to look beyond eastern North Carolina, he said.
“In order for Greenville to be competitive we’ve got to get that talent in here first,” he said. It may not be a business or industry that brings in new people; it could easily be the university. Gerlach noted that Leo Jenkins, the chancellor who oversaw ECU’s transformation from a college to university and championed the creation of the ECU’s medical school, came from New Jersey.
“People complain that this place would be so much better if we didn’t have all these students. That’s just nonsense,” he said.
The students are why Greenville is successful, Gerlach said.
He pointed to Rocky Mount, a city with a smaller private college, for a comparison.
In 1995 Rocky Mount had a workforce of 67,000 people, 12 percent larger than Greenville’s nearly 60,000-person workforce, he said. Today, Rocky Mount’s workforce has dropped to 54,500 while Greenville’s has grown to almost 81,000.
“Why do we have 20,000 more? Why did we grow by a third?" Gerlach asked. "Basically it’s because we have a great medical center and a great university. These are assets, health care and education, that make economic development possible."
The university also is playing a critical role in providing amenities that make the Greenville area an enjoyable place to live.
ECU athletics provide the region with a rallying point and a source of pride, he said.
“There’s nothing better to do that sit in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on a Saturday afternoon watching a ballgame. More of you need to do that,” Gerlach said.
There also are a great number of quality fine arts offerings, he said.
During a question-and-answer session, Gerlach was asked if the construction of a performing arts center was on the horizon.
“I agree with you that the quality of our programming in communications and fine arts is not matched by the quality of the facilities we have,” he said.
Gerlach said he would like to see money raised for a performing arts center but it’s not an immediate priority.
His focus is on securing the $215 million the General Assembly has appropriated for the design and construction of a new facility for the Brody School of Medicine and then repairs and renovations to several buildings on the main campus.
“There’s an old saying that every chancellor is one building away from greatness," he said. "I’m about eight buildings away."
Gerlach was asked how the chamber could assist ECU is securing the medical school funding.
Money for the school was included in the state budget, but Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it because it did not include provisions for Medicaid expansion. While the state House overrode the governor’s veto with a controversial vote last week, the Senate hasn’t voted yet.
“This is a rare opportunity, where you have a full facility in one budget,” Gerlach said. “We risk losing our place in line if this doesn’t get done this year."
That’s because other schools in the UNC System have projects that need funding and it’s possible the General Assembly will put the medical school project on a more traditional, multi-year funding track, he said.