Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


July 6, 2014

Dental school — Tobacco commission can save project

— Yet another key project that has great potential for the region is now in danger of falling by the wayside. The problem — once again — is a lack of necessary funding to make a well-intended economic development vision a reality.

The Bluefield College School of Dental Medicine project was launched just two years ago with great fanfare by the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, the Tazewell County Industrial Development Authority, Bluefield College and the Dental Project Inc. committee. The unique higher education, economic development project was envisioned as the first tenant at the new Bluestone Regional Business and Technology Park located near Bluefield, Va. But now this important project is in danger of not happening at all.

 As originally proposed, the project would have created good, high-paying jobs for the region and millions in new tax revenue for Tazewell County while also helping to address the growing shortage of dentists in Appalachia. The county and the college were hoping to have the first group of students enrolled by 2015, and several dental school staff members were already hired, including a dean.

However, the original memorandum of understanding signed between the college and the county was contingent upon the project being funded by July 1 of this year. A grant application for $19.2 million is still pending with the  Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. But the project wasn’t funded prior to the July 1 expiration of the original memorandum of understanding agreement.

The Tazewell County Board of Supervisors announced last month that the county would no longer fund the project, but said Bluefield College could continue to seek funding on their own. Bluefield College, in return, announced on Monday that work on the dental school was being suspended until — and if — funding for the project is found. College officials say their application with the tobacco commission is still pending and should be considered by the tobacco commission this fall.

After a meeting of the Dental Project Inc. board of directors Monday, Charlie Stacy, chairman of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, said Bluefield College will remain the county’s academic partner. However, the college has suspended the project until funding can be found. And at the moment, all eyes are on the Virginia Tobacco Commission. If the commission funds the project this September, it would behoove both BC and the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors to enter into a new memorandum of understanding to help get this higher education, job creation project back on track.

But without funding support from the tobacco commission, the project could very well remain in a state of limbo. That is until additional local, state or federal funds can be found. Such a scenario would not bode well for the region.

As it stands now, the Bluestone Technology Park is still empty, and no one benefits from an empty industry park. Stacy says there are several businesses that are interested in the Bluestone Park, but getting someone to take those first steps — and to become the first tenant — has been a challenge. That’s one of the reasons why the county is trying to make the dental school project a reality.

At the moment, the best chance of saving this worthwhile project — and creating new jobs and tax revenue for the region — rests with the Virginia Tobacco Commission. It is our hope that the commissioners will give this project full and fair funding consideration at their next meeting this September.

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