HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall University wants to be a machine for economic development in southern West Virginia.
The university is pursuing at least three approaches:
- locally, by developing a hub for entrepreneurs in cooperation with city leaders.
- regionally, by cooperating with other higher education institutions in southern West Virginia to encourage economic growth.
- statewide, by partnering with West Virginia University on a study of how the state’s potential may be met.
“We want to show people that we can do more than just educate young people and prepare them for a career, but we can create opportunities to leverage our universities to help attract businesses, to interface with businesses to help them, to be part of economic development and be part of job creation,” Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said during a recent, hour-long interview in his office.
“I think that’s something that, in the future, institutions will be smart to be more and more involved to create an economic climate in their region that will be conducive to higher standards of living and creating new jobs and attracting new industries to the state and the region.”
Gilbert says he sees a growing need to evolve, branch out and help.
“We have committed at Marshall to being more actively involved in economic development,” he said.
Marshall will ramp up outreach through its Lewis College of Business and with leadership from new dean Avinandan “Avi” Mukherjee, Gilbert said.
Groups of ambassadors from Marshall and Huntington, including Gilbert, Mukherjee, Senator Bob Plymale and others have taken recent visits to the Innovation Depot in Birmingham, Ala.
The incubator, which is run in partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is a possible model for what could take shape in the Huntington area.
Gilbert draws inspiration from Malcolm Portera, former chancellor of the University of Alabama System — particularly admiring his role in economic development.
“I invited him up to Marshall to talk about some of the successes he’s had to show how important it can be and how significant it can be if you leverage higher education with big businesses that need some assistance,” Gilbert said.
“He also mentioned that while he was the chancellor they had started a business hub, which is an innovation depot in Birmingham. It is amazing.”
Gilbert and the others from Huntington saw first-hand on their visit to Birmingham.
“They took two incubators — a university incubator and the city had an incubator also — and they bought an old Sears and Roebuck store that was on the market pretty cheap, and they converted it into a huge incubator for businesses. They have about a hundred businesses. They have a restaurant in there or a food service. Lots of companies, a lot of them are medically related,” Gilbert said.
“We talked to some of the businesses there and got a sense of how important something like that could be for a community.”
Huntington could mirror that success, although likely on a smaller scale. The key is to be sure the local government and the university are in cooperation, Gilbert said.
“So we think we want to create an incubator in Huntington to give us a place where not only the community entrepreneurs would have a place to start out with some assistance, but also our students and our faculty so we would create an environment where community entrepreneurs, faculty with ideas and students with ideas would have a place to get started in an incubator,” he said.
Gilbert has met at least one student — although he suspects there are more — who might have benefited from an incubator. This student, a freshman, wanted to start a computer repair business but ran up against rules that wouldn’t allow him to do so in his residence hall.
“So our thought is we probably have a lot of students with ideas to get started in an incubator that would be great in terms of giving them that boost. We know there are people in the community that would want that possibility to start out in the incubator,” he said.
“We also know that having a place where our college of business faculty and students could interface with entrepreneur business owners would be a great venue to really have some synergy.
Gilbert is pursuing partnership with other universities, colleges and community colleges in southern West Virginia to present a united front for economic development.
“We’re also looking at a bigger opportunity for the whole region,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been talking with all of the institutions in the southern part of the state. We’ve gone and visited with all of them to form an alliance of sorts for economic development.”
The goal would be to promote an economic upturn in southern West Virginia, which has been challenged by a soft coal market for the past several years. Gilbert says the region badly needs economic diversification.
“So our idea is if we can show a prospective business that we have 10 institutions, a combination of community and technical colleges and 4-year universities that are willing to interface with these businesses,” he said, “that that will be a very powerful portfolio to present to a prospective business, saying ‘You come down to the region of southern West Virginia and we’ll make available all the resources of these 10 institutions to help you start your business.’”
The first step has been to see if the other institutions are on board. So far, so good.
“We visited with all of these individuals face to face and said will you be a part of this alliance? And we’ve had very positive responses,” Gilbert said.
“We’ve, in the past, concentrated so much on being competitors and not so much collaborators. And I think it’s a new idea, and I thought let’s pitch this and see if people will buy into it because we have very little to lose and a lot to gain potentially.”
The partnership would also extend to the state Department of Commerce to help show off property ripe for development in the region.
One site that sprung to mind for Gilbert was the former Hobet mine site the former Tomblin administration spoke excitedly about. The site, now renamed Rock Creek Development Park, includes more than 12,000 acres of flat land — a resource that state development officials say is a rarity in southern West Virginia.
“We think any site 5 to 10 acres would be a potential site for a small manufacturing or business facility, but certainly the Rock Creek site is huge,” Gilbert said. “You could put a car assembly plant up there. You could put an airport up there.”
A rising economic tide in southern West Virginia could lift all boats, he said.
“I think there’s a lot of potential in southern West Virginia, but we’ve got to market it. We’ve been complacent only because we haven’t had to market southern West Virginia,” Gilbert said. “Now that we’re faced with an economic challenge, now is the time to step up, so that’s what Marshall is interested in doing is stepping up along with the other institutions and say let us help you attract businesses, manufacturers to southern west Virginia.
“Let’s stimulate this economy, let’s turn it around. We know there is tremendous potential, but right now there’s a malaise in southern west Virginia and we want to help break out of that.”
Gilbert is excited about partnering with West Virginia University and his counterpart, President Gordon Gee, on a broad effort to improve the economic climate in West Virginia.
The project, spearheaded by WVU, incorporates work by McKinsey Global Institute, which is researching what’s setting West Virginia back and what could move the state forward.
The project is known as Forward West Virginia.
“We are looking at the institutions – West Virginia University and Marshall — doing a statewide rollout of different sectors that we can expand into in West Virginia, a little more focused on the idea that there are industries in existence that can be expanded and there are industries that can be attracted in terms of building on the strengths of the state,” Gilbert said.
“It’s a bit more focused on the future and bringing in new industries as opposed to marketing the sites.”
Gilbert welcomes such cooperation between the state’s two biggest universities, which are often viewed as being in competition. He said he gets along quite well with Gee.
“I think he and I have a very cordial and warm relationship. We’ve told each other we’re going to try to work together when we can and try to minimize the competition so that when it make sense for us to join together to do things we’re going to do that,” Gilbert said.
“There’s always a natural level of competition between universities because that’s the way it is. I think it’s more of an attitude that you can either highlight that and exacerbate that competitive nature or you can minimize that and focus more on the collaboration.”