WNC leaders share ideas for new research, technology park at Western

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University’s much anticipated Millennial Campus took another step toward reality Wednesday, Nov. 5, as some 200 leaders from Western North Carolina’s business, industry, education and government sectors shared their ideas for creation of a new venture to nurture research and technology.

C. Joseph Carter, assistant to the chancellor, leads a discussion session.

C. Joseph Carter, assistant to the chancellor, leads a discussion session.

The Millennial Campus is a major component of Western’s efforts to serve as the cultural, social, economic and environmental engine for the mountain region, Chancellor John Bardo said at a regional summit held in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

“We keep seeing manufacturing plants closing all around us, and we keep seeing people losing their jobs,” Bardo said. “These are permanent losses. This is not just the result of an economic downturn. What we are seeing is a fundamental restructuring of the economy, and those jobs are gone for good. They are not coming back.”

That’s why the university is taking steps to help people of the western region participate in the new knowledge-based economy of the 21st century by providing the high-tech education they will need to be competitive and by attempting to stimulate the creation of new start-up businesses that will locate in WNC, he said.

“We have heard it from parents all across the region – in Asheville, in Hendersonville, in Rutherfordton, in Murphy and in all points in between: ‘I want my son or daughter to be able to live in Western North Carolina, to stay in my community, to remain in my church, to live near the family, and to have a good job and have a good life,’” Bardo said. “The Millennial Campus will position the university to help the people of the region as never before.”

During the summit, Eva Klein, whose consulting firm is nationally recognized for its work in planning and developing university-related research and technology parks, told participants that about 60 percent of the nation’s labor force could be described as “knowledge workers.” That percent is expected to increase, Klein said, as more and more traditional manufacturing jobs move overseas.

“A knowledge worker is a person who manipulates symbols or ideas, not machines. It is a person whose knowledge is a part of the company’s capital,” she said. “A high-tech company is not a company that makes computers. It’s either a campus that creates innovations or a company that uses and applies innovations created by others.”

Consultant Eva Klein leads a discussion session as part of Western's summit on a new Millennial Campus.

Consultant Eva Klein leads a discussion session as part of Western’s summit on a new Millennial Campus.

Increasingly, universities are becoming core assets for regional economic development activities, Klein said, pointing to examples including the Research Triangle Park, N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, Penn State’s Innovation Park and Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center.

Following the opening presentations, Klein and her consulting team led a series of group discussions on the region’s assets and challenges, and potential partners for the Millennial Campus. The consultants also met with university and community representatives for more in-depth discussion, and will be issuing a report to the campus perhaps as early as spring.

University officials have been working for several years on plans for a Western North Carolina version of N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, a 1,000-acre “knowledge enterprise zone” where university, private industry and government partners work together through research and development facilities and business incubators to produce scientific and technological innovations.

Western began seeking legislation in 1999 that would enable the university to create a research and technology park where faculty, student and staff resources – including brainpower – could be tapped by private businesses to create new jobs and spin-off companies. The proposal was expanded the next year to include all University of North Carolina institutions, and the General Assembly ratified the legislation in July 2000.