PARKERSBURG - West Virginia University at Parkersburg has held a unique relationship with the Mid-Ohio Valley in its 50-year history, both helping to build up the community while being built up by the community.
The theme of the college's 50th anniversary this year is "The College the Community Built." President Marie Foster Gnage said the designation is not one taken lightly by the institution or its staff.
"More than anything, what we want to do is continue offering quality, accessible and affordable education," she said. "We want to continue to meet the needs of the community."
State Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette, a former member of the West Virginia University at Parkersburg Board of Governors and former executive director of the Wood County Economic Development Authority, said the college's impact on the area cannot be overstated. Burdette also is a 1975 graduate of WVU-P.
"The college was created out of necessity. The community wanted this college, wanted to see it grow," he said. "It's not really what we've done. It's what we need to do and what we are going to do."
Jimmy Colombo, a local business owner and former mayor of Parkersburg, was among the first graduates when the college began in the 1960s. Though the college initially had an enrollment of about 104, it quickly became a turning point for the area.
"When I went to school there back in the '60s, it was just the start of an idea," Colombo said. "It has evolved into a really strong institution."
Colombo said the community rallied around the college when officials sought to pass a $3.6 million bond issue to build a new facility, the building that now serves as the center of West Virginia University at Parkersburg.
"It wasn't paid for by the university. It was community money," Colombo said. "I can remember holding signs, passing out pamphlets for that issue, and we did get the votes needed to pass that issue to start building that college."
Charles Casto, former president of BB&T, was among the first people to advocate the creation of a new college building. Along with more than a dozen other business and community leaders who made up the area Speakers Bureau in the 1960s, Casto helped promote the passage of a local levy to build a new facility for the burgeoning college.
That community support was another first for the college and for the state.
"It is the only college in the state whose initial funding was done through a bond proposal," Burdette said.
Steve Nicely, president of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his father, Harry C. Nicely, was instrumental in securing the land where WVU-P is located.
Harry Nicely was a member of the Wood County Court, now the Wood County Commission.
"The way I was told the story, at the time the county farm was not being used. My father suggested the court donate the farm for the new college," Steve Nicely said.
The donation allowed the new facility to be built and expanded upon over the years.
"My dad told me more than once this was one of his highlights. This was one thing he was most proud of," Steve Nicely said. "He thought this was one of the most important things they did in the 12 years he was on the court."
Burdette said the college has been a frontrunner throughout its history, not only in the Mid-Ohio Valley but also in the state.
"It has been a groundbreaker in almost every stage of its existence," he said. "WVU-P in all of its different forms and names has had a huge impact on the state in general and Parkersburg in specific."
Sue Woodward, assistant superintendent of school services for Wood County Schools, was able to graduate with an associate's degree from the college in 1971, only a year after graduating from Parkersburg High School.
"I was a dual enrollment before there was dual enrollment," she said. "It was because the staff was more than willing to accept me and work with my high school schedule. They really were forward thinking at that time in letting this 17-year-old kid come out and enroll in college courses who hadn't graduated from high school yet."
Woodward said the college's relationship with the public school system has continued to grow over the years, providing college students opportunities to work directly in the classrooms and giving the school system highly skilled and motivated teachers.
"We continue to value the role we both play in developing a well-educated community," Woodward said. "We were collaborating before collaboration became cool, and I would hope we would continue to expand upon that in the future."
The college continually updates and revises its course offerings, adding programs as community need grows and changes. It has expanded its services to include a center in Jackson County, the Caperton Center for Applied Technology and online courses.
The college also continues work on renovating the W.T. Grant building in downtown Parkersburg. Officials are looking to offer business courses and training classes.
Mayor Bob Newell said the impact of the college on local businesses and the revitalization of downtown Parkersburg still has yet to be fully realized.
"It will be as big and as important as the Blue Cross Blue Shield project," Newell said. "It will bring a large and different population to the downtown. It most likely will bring an evening population to downtown, which is something we haven't had in awhile."
Newell said he already has seen new businesses come to the downtown area in anticipation of the center, and some existing businesses have looked to expand.
"It is very important to us," he said. "This is a huge development."
Gnage said the college has had more than its share of hurdles to overcome. At several times in its history changes in state legislation have translated to massive changes for the college. Every time though, she said, WVU-P has emerged better and more dedicated to its root cause of providing educational opportunities for the community.
"We just keep going," she said. "We've proven that over and over again."
"I have an incredible love of the college," Burdette said, "but more importantly I have a strong appreciation for the impact it has had on the area. It has been an economic factor for the area. WVU-P has given lots of folks the opportunity to get a higher education.
"I am convinced that WVU-P's future is brighter than its past."
"I think the college is a huge benefit to this area," Casto said. "I feel it is a great asset to the community and the county around it. It gives people not only affordability on the tuition side, but also allows them to live at home and commute. Families can still be together while people are getting an advanced education. It gives them an opportunity they might otherwise not have.
"I hope it will continue to grow and to provide its services to the community for years to come."
"WVU-P has always been a good partner to Parkersburg and the community in general," Newell said. "It has been a big asset."
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for people to continue their educations," Colombo said. "It was a terrific investment made by the people of Wood County for the people of Wood County."
"It's really been a college of firsts since its inception," Burdette said. "I believe the next 50 years for the college will be more important than its first 50 years."
"I'm glad they've reached this milestone," Steve Nicely said, "and I'm sure in 50 more years they will have another celebration."