ECU plans public-private research campus

East Carolina University is poised to move ahead with a research campus built on public-private partnerships, in hopes of becoming a talent magnet for the state’s eastern region.

The university received approval Thursday from a UNC Board of Governors committee for a “millennial campus.” That designation allows the flexibility for ECU to pursue deals with private companies to build what will be called the East Carolina Research and Innovation Campus. The full board is expected to approve the measure Friday.

The idea has been on the drawing board for a decade but was stalled by the recession and by ECU’s launch of a dental school. The buildout will take years.

There are seven other so-called millennial campuses tied to universities in the UNC system. The most well known is N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, which was incubated more than 30 years ago.

In ECU’s case, the venture would not be on one large tract of land but in four clusters adjacent to other parts of campus, including a warehouse district, downtown Greenville and the medical complex at the edge of town. It will be focused on five sectors – health care, military, advanced manufacturing, agricultural workforce and STEAM, otherwise known as science, technology, engineering and math integrated with the arts.

University leaders say they want to build a workforce that is both technically skilled and creative in economically struggling Eastern North Carolina.

“To transform this region there have to be different economic sectors and different capacities, and this will allow us to marry our strengths with what the region needs,” said ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard.

Ted Morris, associate vice chancellor of innovation and economic development, said the goal is to grow and retain talented young people who will want to stay in Eastern North Carolina.

The new “millennial” designation, codified in state law, will help ECU attract private partners for new ventures. “It gives us the opportunity to expand what we do, who we do it with and how robustly we do it across every leg of our mission,” Morris said.

Harry Smith, a UNC board member, ECU graduate and Greenville resident, said the eastern region loses too many young people to the urban areas of the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte.

“We’re in a fight in the east,” Smith said. “And what we have to continue to do is have vision and continue to do everything we can to invest and help East Carolina University compete.”

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