Va. school considers need to trade idyllic landscape for commerce

Ferrum College weighs move of farm museum

October 14, 2002|By Rex Bowman | Rex Bowman,RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH

FERRUM, Va. -- Since the founding of Ferrum College in 1913, students have learned amid verdant fields, soft-shouldered mountains and wooded slopes.

The question now before the college is whether to trade in a little of that idyllic landscape for asphalt and a shopping plaza.

The issue has sparked lively discussion between the administration and the faculty.

The administration is interested in the possibility of selling 11 acres of the college campus to make way for a grocery store and other businesses.

The faculty, for the most part, argues that this particular commercial development would diminish the campus's unique rural setting.

Site of museum

Making the issue more problematic is the land being considered for sale: Upon it sits the Blue Ridge Farm Museum.

The museum, across State Road 40 from the main campus, is a collection of heavy-timbered cabins and barns, fields and gardens.

Every October during the college's popular Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, museum visitors can see for themselves how, among other things, Virginia's mountain families made molasses, drove teams of mules and trained dogs to tree a racoon.

To build a shopping plaza anchored by a grocery store, the farm museum would have to be moved. Many people see the museum as a symbol of the college's roots in Blue Ridge culture.

"The impact on the campus would be significant," said Professor C.I. Dillon III, director of the college library and one of the more vocal opponents of the proposal.

"Students come here because it is rural. And we have a real sense of ownership of the Farm Museum and our concept of the development of the Appalachian region.

"A lot of us don't equate that type of shopping center with economic development."

Developer's view

On the other side of the argument stands Maury Carter, a Florida real estate developer, trustee of the private, United Methodist-affiliated college, and driving force behind the proposal.

Carter has been in constant contact with Food Lion about coming to Ferrum.

Carter said Ferrum needs to embrace development to help rural Franklin County create jobs to keep residents and students from moving elsewhere.

To Carter, that means not only bringing in the grocery store, but using up to 300 acres of college land to build an 18-hole golf course, a subdivision for retired corporate executives, a medical facility and other enterprises that might spur employment.

Carter's vision is in line with a land-use plan the college's board of trustees adopted in 1999.

"I grew up one mile from the college and when I graduated from Ferrum I could not find a job anywhere in the area," Carter said.

"We educate these students, and then we have nothing for them to do.

"I'd like to see these kids, when they get that cap and gown, get a job in the area as well."

Such development would be a novelty for western Franklin, a patchwork of emerald hills and golden meadows crisscrossed by babbling streams and narrow country roads.

Ferrum residents and students who can't find what they need at the small Ferrum Minute Market just down the road from the college have to drive nine miles to the Winn-Dixie in Rocky Mount.

Danny Perdue, owner of the Minute Market, said he's not sure a large grocery store could make money in Ferrum.

"I don't think Ferrum is big enough to support a Food Lion. I think they would need those executive homes and the golf course first."

Before summer recess nearly emptied the 700-acre campus of its roughly 1,000 students, the issue had begun dividing people into different camps.

Franklin's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to back the plan for a grocery store in Ferrum.

The heads of various academic departments at Ferrum, however, announced their opposition in April, a week before the May meeting of the board of trustees.

About 240 students signed a petition opposed to the proposal.

"We'd like to see campus land stay campus land," Dillon said.

Confronted with the opposition, trustees nevertheless voted to support the land-use plan that allows such commercial development.

However, they stopped short of endorsing the proposal for a small shopping plaza, opting instead to keep it under consideration.

"It's fairly accurate to say that they are weighing the benefits of the plan against how it will affect the community," college spokeswoman Lisa Jamison Bowling said.

Bowling said trustees postponed discussing the issue while new college President Jennifer Braaten studies it. Braaten took the head job this month, replacing Jerry Boone, a proponent of the development plan.

While Braaten ponders what role a grocery store might play in Ferrum's future, Carter said he is discussing the college land with other grocery chains. He said he'll pitch the plan again when the trustees gather in the fall.

"A lot of independent colleges are in a lot of financial difficulties," Carter said, "and we're going to be in the same difficulties if we don't make some changes."

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