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June 28, 2007
Money Panel Tours New College, Museum Thursday, June 28, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The state House Appropriations Committee could recommend more funding for the New College Institute (NCI) and Virginia Museum of Natural History in the future now that committee members have seen the facilities and work of those institutions up close, lawmakers indicated Wednesday.

Members of the committee's Capital Outlay Subcommittee visited NCI and the museum Wednesday morning while on a regional tour of state facilities.

Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said he hopes the House will try to increase funding for both NCI and the museum "now that the people on the money committee ... have seen where the money is being spent."

The museum is optimistic that the subcommittee's visit will result in more state funding, said Marketing and External Affairs Director Ryan Barber.

Barber said the visit was "a good opportunity to show what the support of the commonwealth of Virginia has provided ... not just for the museum, but for Martinsville, Henry County and the entire region."

"We never know for certain" whether to expect increases in state funding, said NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey. But having lawmakers see the institute's operations first-hand should improve the chances, he said.

The House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee work together to set funding levels for state institutions.

NCI is receiving about $1.25 million in state funding in the new fiscal year, which will begin Sunday, while the museum is receiving about $2.9 million.

"I'm pleased to see we're able to make investments in things that are going to make significant changes in the future of this area," Del. Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, said of lawmakers.

"It's so exciting to see things we've talked about in Richmond come true," said Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester.

As a new higher education institution, NCI "certainly is going to need more money," said Del. Algie T. Howell Jr., D-Norfolk. In the future, "I think we will appropriate more money for it."

"We'll see what we need to build on from here" to help the institute remain successful, said Del. Robert H. Brink, D-Arlington.

With technology making it possible for students to take courses offered by colleges and universities without having to travel to those schools, "there is no reason why the New College can't work," Wardrup said.

And if the institute stays successful, "we'll beef up funding for it," he said.

NCI, which is on Courthouse Square uptown, began educating students last September, ahead of schedule. It provides students local access to baccalaureate and master's degrees conferred by colleges and universities elsewhere in Virginia.

The institute is "a great idea" for people who "can't afford the rising costs of higher education," said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke.

Students pursuing four-year degrees can attend Patrick Henry Community College for their freshman and sophomore years, then complete degree requirements at NCI, all without having to leave home, Ware said.

"It's going to be very accommodating to young people who live here," said Howell.

Brink said that NCI is important "to make sure there is a magnet" to attract people to Southside. Not only can the institute serve local students, he said, but also students from elsewhere, encouraging them to remain in Southside to work after they graduate.

The institute had anticipated educating as many as 50 students during its first year of operation but is teaching about 100, officials have said.

"We've outgrown our space already" so the NCI building is being remodeled to create more classrooms, Associate Director Leanna Blevins told delegates.

With state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology in its classrooms, "we can connect with anywhere in the world," added Charles Toothman, the institute's fiscal and human resources administrator.

NCI's Dorsey went to Danville to ride back to Martinsville on the lawmakers' bus. On the ride back, he said, lawmakers told him they are "impressed with the progress we've made in a short period of time."

The Virginia Museum of Natural History became a state institution in 1988, having opened four years earlier as a private facility. Its new 89,127-square-foot building on Starling Avenue, which opened in March, is roughly five times as large as its previous location, the former Joseph Martin Elementary School on Douglas Avenue.

A bond bill signed by former Gov. Mark Warner a few years ago is covering the new building's $13 million construction cost.

Inside are laboratories with large windows letting visitors watch museum scientists at work, as well as elaborate, high-tech exhibits developed by a professional design firm.

Many of the exhibits are designed to show "we don't have all the answers" to questions about natural history, said Jim Beard, the museum's curator of earth sciences. "We want (people) to investigate" science on their own.

Wardrup took a long look at a periodic table of the elements that he found in a laboratory.

"I was trying to remember how many there were when I took college chemistry" versus the number of elements today, he laughed.

Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, said the new museum location is "pretty amazing" compared with the previous facility, which he visited in 1997.

"I'm amazed at how history comes alive in this place," Del. Mamye BaCote, D-Newport News, said shortly after showing Wardrup an exhibit featuring fossils and shells found in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Del. Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach, admitted that he basically expected to see a bunch of stuffed animals on display at the museum. But he was "very impressed by what they're (scientists) doing here," he said, adding that the museum should lure tourists to Henry County and Martinsville.

BaCote likely will be one of those tourists.

"I could stay in there all day and night," she said of the museum. "I'm going to have to come back."

Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville, toured the college but could not make it to the museum due to commitments in Richmond, he said Wednesday.

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