An ambitious plan to turn part of an old cotton mill in downtown Mooresville into an education technology development center is moving forward, as economic development officials and school leaders here are seeking investment.
The Mooresville Center for Digital Innovation would serve as an incubator for education technology companies, enabling them to develop and test their software while receiving feedback from educators and students.
For an area whose school district has drawn wide attention over the years for its progressive approach to digital learning, the center “makes sense,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District.
The center would occupy at least 5,000 square feet in the old Burlington Mill, a more than 700,000-square-foot building on South Main Street that now houses a furniture warehouse and is owned by developer Michael Bay. The center would operate as an independent nonprofit overseen by a board of directors comprising members of the school district and the Mooresville-South Iredell Economic Development Corp.
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In addition, the center would provide internships for high school and even elementary students to help such companies develop and test products, involving things such as computer coding, graphic design and market research.
“It would be a great resume-builder,” Mooresville Commissioner David Coble said.
Discussions about the center have taken place over the past year and a half, involving also the Mooresville-South Iredell Economic Development Corp. and the town.
In early April, Edwards appeared at an education technology summit in Phoenix, Ariz., promoting the center and asking for $2 million in private investment over three years. In addition to educators and investors, the summit drew a number of startup companies.
The money would cover retrofitting the space, along with operating and employee costs. Officials are also considering grants to help finance the project.
Among the leading education technology companies are Knewton, which aims to enable educators to personalize digital lessons, and TutorGroup, an online platform for English- language learners.
So far, the idea of opening such a space has generated “real serious interest,” Edwards said, noting that officials here are in discussions with venture capitalists, including local ones.
He added that based on extrapolations from “years of data” on the education technology sector and the increasing investment it has attracted, companies using the center could turn a profit in two years.
“There is a true market need for a clearinghouse, if you will, for software design,” said Robert Carney, executive director of the EDC.
That such an enterprise is planned for Mooresville is not surprising.
Even though the school district is among the lowest-funded in the state, Edwards said, it ranked No. 1 in the state for annual academic performance standards in the 2013-14 school year. It also has a one of the highest graduation rates, at 90 percent.
At the same time, it has drawn wide attention for its emphasis on digital learning, drawing visits from education technology companies nationwide and abroad over the past six years or so. Each student in grades 4-12 are given a laptop to use at home and school, and third-graders are given one to use at school.
Next school year, students in grades K-2 are expected to have their own digital learning device, Edwards said, noting the last time the district bought a textbook was five years ago.
Such visits have had a significant economic impact on the town, generating millions of dollars, in what Edwards and others have dubbed “education tourism.”
“They want to talk to us,” Edwards said of investors.
Jake Flannick is a freelance writer. Have a story for Jake? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org