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From makerspace to destination maker, Mayland Community College is driving community and economic development

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According to President John Boyd, Mayland Community College (MCC) works closely with counties, local chambers of commerce, and economic development corporations. It plays an important — and unusual — role in economic development and community development across the region it serves.

“Smaller student populations often limit small, rural community colleges,” said Boyd. Enrollment is a primary driver of state appropriations, which can limit degrees offered and access to faculty talent.

That’s a real challenge, but Boyd sees a real opportunity.

“Rural colleges offer so many opportunities to make a difference to our communities and our students,” he said. “We offer the hope of a better life and a better community and are leaders within the communities we serve.”

The community college serves Mitchell, Avery, and Yancey counties, and that’s where the “May” in Mayland comes from.

This is the service area of Mayland Community College.

It started with a need to supply metal parts to companies through rapid prototyping. But MCC’s role in regional economic development has now expanded to include its acquisition of a hotel and former hockey coliseum as well as the building of a planetarium and an observatory that hopes to attract 30,000 tourists annually.

All are run through the Mayland Community College Enterprise Corporation (MEC), a 501(c)(3).

Under Boyd’s leadership, MCC has become a destination maker for the region.

“We hope it will keep more of our graduates living here, encourage more people to move here, and attracts more industry,” he said.

Creating 3-D metal parts for companies

The Anspach Advanced Manufacturing School is located at MCC’s Yancey Learning Center. When it opened back in 2015, this 13,000-square-foot space garnered the attention of the Duke Energy Foundation, who invested $250,000 for the purchase of a three-dimensional metal printer.

You can see the timeline of a project like this in these photos:

Boyd said, “Companies design the part, email us the design, and we print that in metal so instead of three to four months waiting for a part, we have it ready in two days.”

In November 2022, they had already manufactured 25-30 parts during the year, and there were weeks when the printer was running the whole time.

Yancey and Mitchell counties have some of the fastest internet speeds in North Carolina. The Anspach Advanced Manufacturing School and MCC have been able to leverage internet access to create additional opportunities.

According to this report from ncIMPACT, “Broadband access also made it possible for new employment partnerships to form, including between Mayland Community College and the BRP manufacturing plant, who work collaboratively through the College’s advanced manufacturing program to train and retain workers in the area.”

Access to state-of-the-art machinery, broadband, and rapid prototyping is creating opportunities for students to work.

Students with work scholarships receive tuition and fees, and in exchange for working 16 hours a week, they get paid $15 per hour.

From fishing rod parts to parts for hospitals to parts for aircraft, “they are working hand-in-hand with industry,” said Boyd.

The Blue Ridge Boutique Hotel

In Spruce Pine, there is a 32-room boutique hotel operated by the nonprofit MEC.

The rooms are named for local destinations, and the hotel is run by students attending MCC.

Located on the Toe River and connected by a footbridge to downtown Spruce Pine, the hotel was built in 1921 and originally served as an elementary school.

A restaurant will be named “The Principal’s Office,” and the bar will be called “The Boiler Room.”

This outdoor space is currently under construction.

The Three Peaks Enrichment Center

Next door to the hotel, MCC is taking the former Pine Bridge Coliseum — home from 1983-85 to the Pinebridge Bucks of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, an incredible story in and of itself — and turning it into the Three Peaks Enrichment Center.

The Golden LEAF Foundation is investing in the center, said CEO and President Scott Hamilton in this video, as an investment not just in the building and not just in the community, but as an investment in the northwest region of North Carolina.

The center, said Hamilton, is an investment in the nexus of economic development, talent and workforce development, critical infrastructure, and community capacity building.

The center includes the Mayland Cosmetic Arts Center, creating an opportunity for cosmetology students to provide services to the community. Here you can see the services offered, pricing, and how to call and make an appointment.

The Resource Center for Entrepreneurs will also be located in the center, and it will be the new home of the Mayland Small Business Center.

Future plans include a massage therapy center, culinary arts kitchen and classroom, a 2,000-seat event space, and a partnership for the YMCA of Avery County to expand into Mitchell County.

“Mayland has taken on these two projects primarily because we believe there is a need to help with community development,” said Boyd. The hotel and center will be “vibrant parts of the community,” increasing educational offerings, investing in the workforce, and bringing in tourists who will support local businesses.

“This facility is going to be an anchor for the community to come to, to learn from, and to be able to grow and prosper,” said Golden LEAF’s Hamilton.

The Earth to Sky Park

Six miles west of Spruce Pine, the MEC is managing the Earth to Sky Park, an environmental education park that includes an observatory and a planetarium.

Courtesy of Mayland Community College

The observatory opened in 2017 and includes a roof that rolls off the building, and according to MCC, it houses the largest telescope in the southeast dedicated to public use, an f/3.6 StarStructure Newtonian telescope with a 34 inch mirror.

The “Sam Scope,” named in memory of Samuel Phillips, whose family foundation provided funding for the telescope. Drawing courtesy of Mayland Community College.

Curious what you might see looking up into the night sky?

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) designated the Mayland Earth to Sky Park and Observatory as the first IDA-certified star park in the southeastern United States. Boyd said MCC was the 22nd certification by IDA worldwide, and Mayland Earth to Sky Park remains the only IDA-certified site run by a higher education institution. The next closest site that also includes a planetarium is in South Korea.

Certification requires that stargazing be allowed 24/7 even if the observatory is closed, so you can stop by literally anytime.

Here you can purchase tickets for upcoming events at the observatory.

Here is information on the planetarium and laser light shows. Fun facts include that the geodesic dome was created with a 3-D printer, the design includes a Quonset hut, and there is a mural entitled “The Good of the Hive” that encircles the planetarium.

The O’Connell Conference Center includes meeting space and a classroom lab. The Children’s Discovery Center provides hands-on STEM opportunities, including an environmental education center and an engineering discovery center. An aquaponics lab grounds the earth part of this “earth to sky” park and shows how astronauts might grow plants in space.

“The Earth to Sky Park is an amazing resource right on our front door,” said Dan Brigman, the superintendent of Avery County Schools. “We are so excited to offer these hands-on STEM resources that promote workforce development to our students. I am excited about what the future holds for the park and the impact it will have on our kids for many years to come.”

Last weekend, Kyle Lanning with Mayland Community College was invited to present along with leaders from UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, and the University of Virginia at the Triad Starfest.

‘There’s nobody else’

Running these types of enterprises isn’t in the job description of community college president.

I asked Boyd if he is just wired to be game.

“There’s nobody else,” he said.

The stories he shared reveal the pride that goes along with watching the impact unfold.

The hotel booked 350 rooms in October 2022. “Those are people coming in and staying in town who would otherwise stay somewhere else,” Boyd said.

In December 2022, he said, the first ads ran in “Our State” magazine offering the hotel, the observatory, and the planetarium as a wedding venue.

Boyd said 70-80% of the visitors who come to the planetarium and observatory are driving three or more hours.

What’s next? Boyd plans to start a meat cutting program, where students will learn to slaughter, butcher, and grade meat for companies like Hickory Nut Gap Farms. The restaurant at the hotel will serve the meat.

In the long term, Boyd is confident this will all help Mayland Community College.

And that is his job.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.