Albemarle talks with South Carolina, Virginia officials about downtown colleges

City of Albemarle leaders met with Marion, Va. and Spartanburg, S.C. officials through web conferences Monday to talk about colleges in their downtowns.

Albemarle officials, along with those at Pfeiffer University, are trying to gather info to help with the Pfeiffer Health Sciences Center, which is being built in downtown Albemarle and scheduled to open next summer.

The center will house programs in physician’s assistant studies and occupational therapy. When the programs are at full capacity, there will be between 250 to 300 students in the downtown area every day.

Albemarle officials presented questions gathered at a community input session in August to representatives for the cities.

Spartanburg is bigger than Albemarle, with a population of 37,000 and the surrounding Spartanburg County totaling more than 300,000 people.

The city is home to seven colleges and universities, representing about 16,000 people. Of the seven, five have a major presence in the downtown area, city representatives said.

While the city’s population and size makes it hard to compare with Albemarle — which has around 16,000 residents total, the main takeaway was that the quality of the colleges and their programs is what drew the students and surrounding restaurants and businesses.

The city has added 25 businesses over the last two and a half years. One representative credited it to the students living in the downtown. It has many restaurants, but outdoor beer gardens have been popular with students recently.

Spartanburg benefits from the students eating at restaurants downtown because the city has a 2 percent hospitality tax on the sales of prepared meals and beverages which goes directly into the city’s coffers.

The city also hosts a career fair, featuring local businesses, that focuses on retaining students after they graduate.

A smaller city more closely resembling Albemarle is Marion, Va., which houses four graduate programs from Emory & Henry College’s School of Health Sciences. There are about 1,200 students living in Marion.

“I actually feel that Emory & Henry in Marion probably is closer to what we want than Spartanburg,” Mayor Ronnie Michael said.

Marion has lost population and stands at a little under 6,000 people. Michael said over the next 20 years, it expects to see a 20 percent decrease in population.

Marion has nine restaurants in its downtown and, similar to Albemarle, most of the businesses close at 5 p.m.
There are about 50 housing units downtown which were provided by private developers, Michael said. A new developer recently bought a tract of land near downtown and plans to build 120 apartments in the next few years.

Marion received two $75,000 grants from the United States Department of Agriculture. The city has been loaning $15,000 at 2 percent interest to businesses coming to the city.

After talking with both cities, Michael said his biggest concern was finding enough housing for the Pfeiffer students.

He has been trying to figure out how the city can legally give money to attract developers and new businesses to come to the city, similar to what Marion has done with its community loan program. Per North Carolina law, Albemarle would have to offer businesses at-risk loans with high interest rates.

Lee Allen, broker and owner of Re/Max Town and Country, said the city needs to learn to better sell itself. Roger Dick, Uwharrie Capital Corp. CEO, said the problem is finding people who can write checks to help attract development.

Pfeiffer president Dr. Scott Bullard said Albemarle and the university could take away lessons from both cities. Specifically, Bullard referred to Spartanburg’s focus on quality academics with Marion’s addressing population declines in its community with the health college programs.