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  • Diana Matthews

Golden LEAF grants $1 million for nursing simulator, business incubator in downtown Whiteville

Area nursing students and entrepreneurs will benefit from grants totaling $1 million by the Golden LEAF Foundation. Southeastern Community College received $500,000 to buy equipment and supplies to create a simulated hospital environment for nursing and health sciences students. The other $500,000 recipient is an Entrepreneurial and Business Development Center to be established in downtown Whiteville.

The Town of Bolton received $56,816.77 to support repair of stormwater infrastructure damaged as a result of Hurricane Florence.

The Golden LEAF Foundation administers a portion of North Carolina’s funding received from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with cigarette manufacturers.

Nursing benefits

Gail Auten, nursing instructor and simulation lab coordinator at SCC, wrote the proposal requesting $500,000 to enhance the current simulation lab, providing students with experiences that parallel the clinical setting.

Nursing and EMS/Paramedic students will network with Columbus Regional Healthcare System personnel carrying out realistic patient scenarios, gaining experience that is not always available in their real-life clinical rotations.

SCC Director of Nursing Kim Fine explained that the expanded lab will benefit students in all of the college’s nursing-related programs, including associate degree nursing, practical nursing and nursing assistant and EMS training.

Stephanie Kriner, the director of fire and EMS programs at SCC, said that, with the expanded lab, “EMS students will have the opportunity to experience realistic training use of high-fidelity equipment that will better prepare them to be competent providers in the field.”

“It is hard to spend $500,000, but I look forward to the challenge,” Auten said. SCC hopes to have the new equipment operational as early as 2021.

Growing local businesses

When it comes to launching a small business, “A lot of people have ideas but no place to start,” said Gary Lanier, director of Columbus County’s Economic Development Commission. Some sink $5,000-6,000 into office space, furniture and computers before they see their first customers. “They need guidance from people who know how to run a business and know how not to make mistakes that cost money, effort and customers.”

Lanier’s department collaborated with the Columbus Jobs Foundation on the grant request for the proposed Columbus County Entrepreneurial and Business Development Center (CCEBDC).

Funds will be used to renovate an existing downtown Whiteville building, in which local business start-ups can share low-cost office space, but services will go far beyond a place for people to work. Training and expert guidance at the CCEBDC will “provide an environment to help people be successful starting businesses,” Lanier said.

“An entrepreneurial center has been one of the Columbus Jobs Foundation board’s primary goals for a couple of years,” said CJF Chair Les High. “Our team has toured several centers across the state and the success stories are evident.”

He envisions the center bringing under one roof the county economic development commission and planning department, Whiteville’s economic development office, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and SCC’s Small Business Center, that’s a decision each entity has to make on its own, High said. “Having multiple resources working together would reduce costs for everyone, provide expertise to entrepreneurs and impress the business and industrial prospects we’re recruiting.”

High said that “family-owned, mom-and-pop operations that will stay in Columbus County and create jobs” will be the focus of the center.

CJF board member Jonathan Medford said that, “locally grown businesses tend to stick with us through the toughest economic times. I look at the success of businesses like Black’s Tire, Council Tool, Atlantic Packaging and Pridgen Woodwork. We know there are entrepreneurs in this county who are ready to grow the next big business in Columbus County. Hopefully, this center will help make it happen.”

The grant means that, “It’s time to move forward with our plan now,” said Medford, including securing the site. “We do have some buildings in mind, but we’re not quite ready to say which ones yet.” If the coronavirus pandemic or other circumstances do not delay the process, Medford hopes to have the center up and running in the summer of 2021.

Medford headed the committee that pursued the grant. After being “impressed by what the UNCP-affiliated Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship was able to accomplish in downtown Pembroke,” CJF leaders “felt like we could implement something similar here.”

Medford called the grant “a win for everyone in Columbus County.” Anyone with a new business or looking to start one can benefit from the classes and consultations provided at the center. “They do not have to be a tenant.”

The grant applicants did extensive research to determine local needs. “I am very appreciative of the work that Gary Lanier and Madison Ward put into this grant application on behalf of the county and the Columbus Jobs Foundation,” Medford said.

Other partners in the project include SCC, UNC-Pembroke, the Brian Hamilton Foundation, and Fayetteville State University. Lanier said that Truist Bank, formerly BB&T, had always been supportive of business startups in the area as well.

The grant application predicted that at least 21 businesses over a three-year period will be served by the CCEBDC, resulting in the creation of at least 200 new jobs in that time. Those figures were based on the experience of UNCP’s Thomas Center.

The Golden LEAF Foundation “has always been a great partner” on job-creation projects, for example, Tabor City’s Radix Bay facility, Lanier said.

Regional benefits

In all, $12.2 million in Golden LEAF funding will go to colleges, hospitals and economic development groups throughout the Sandhills Prosperity Zone, including Bladen, Cumberland, Hoke, Moore, Robeson, Sampson and Scotland counties.

Much of the money will enhance training for truck drivers, health professionals and construction specialists. Other grants will extend sewer and hospital infrastructure.

The North Carolina Community College System was awarded $1.5 million to support scholarships for rural students from tobacco-dependent or economically distressed counties. Up to $500,000 of that total is to be used immediately for eligible students in need as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with the other scholarships to be awarded during the 2020-2021 school year.

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