ALBEMARLE — An eager crowd of bundled-up observers assembled early Jan. 17 in a vacant lot, huddling with government officials as steam from their coffee cups curled into the air.
They attended a groundbreaking ceremony at Pfeiffer University for a $16 million Center for Health Sciences, expected to be completed by May 2020. Eventually 200 students each year will enter new programs to earn advanced degrees — either a master of science in physician assistant studies or a doctorate of occupational therapy.
Government and economic development officials say the project should ignite spin-off businesses and accelerate a renaissance in the old mill town. University officials say it will provide vital academic training, help relieve physician shortages, and attack medical disparities in underserved rural areas of North Carolina.
The Stanly County Museum once stood where Pfeiffer will build in Albemarle, not far from the university’s main campus in Misenheimer. The museum moved into the unused City Hall annex.
“This is a great day for our community,” said Roger Dick, CEO of Uwharrie Capital Corp and a member of the Pfeiffer Board of Trustees. “You are present at a special moment in our history, at a time that will be remembered as the start of a new era of prosperity and growth in Albemarle, all of Stanly County, and our neighboring communities.”
Albemarle, incorporated in 1857, has 16,000 residents. That’s slightly more than a quarter of Stanly County’s population of 62,727, more than two-thirds of which is rural. Median income is $36,545, compared to $50,584 statewide.
“We all know what the textile industry — when they closed up — did to our city,” Albemarle Mayor Ronnie Michael said before striking a more upbeat message.
“This is the greatest impact I think I could ever see in my lifetime on the city,” Michael said. “We’re going to have a lot of opportunities downtown with new development, and old buildings being developed into apartments and restaurants” to cater to the surge of future student residents.
The city’s economic development department estimates the center’s 10-year economic impact will be more than $136 million.
Pfeiffer’s presence will put a high-profile stamp on the city, known for launching North Carolina Tar Heels play-by-play announcer Woody Durham’s broadcast career at radio station WZKY-AM. It’s also the birthplace of American Idol contestant-turned-country music star Kellie Pickler.
Albemarle had a passing fling with a gold rush in the surrounding Uwharrie Mountains in the 1800s. Cotton farms and textile mills powered the economy, but petered out. Alcoa’s nearby aluminum processing factory came and went.
It’s exactly the sort of place where Pfeiffer’s mission of social justice and servant leadership is needed, said President Colleen Keith.
“Rural health and health disparities are kind of who we are,” Keith said. Concentrations in the PA program will be offered in rural health primary care and mental health. Those services are in great demand in North Carolina’s less-populated regions.
Occupational therapy and PA are 27-month programs. Students will spend their first year in the new center, which will have a large multipurpose room to accommodate teaching or medical conferences. There will be classrooms, a lab, six exam rooms, and six hospital rooms with simulated human patients. The second phase of training is field work in rural clinics and physician offices.
Keith said university officials hope they can achieve what many medical schools struggle with — keeping the vast majority of graduates from relocating in larger N.C. cities or leaving the state.
“Often times PA students will stay in the communities they did their work in,” Keith said. That’s why Pfeiffer will immerse its students in rural settings, and familiarize them with the cultures, customs, and people.
Partners are waiting in the wings, Keith said. Monarch has a brick-faced behavioral health center across the street from the Pfeiffer site. Monarch occupies the bottom floor of the historic Lillian Mills, recently restored with condominiums above. GHA Autism Supports is building a facility for developmentally disabled adults, and adults with autism.
Brenda Diaz, director of Pfeiffer’s PA program, said it is the last one North Carolina regulators will approve. Full-time and adjunct faculty, staff, and guest lecturers will be used.
Campbell University, East Carolina University, Elon University, Gardner-Webb University, High Point University, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Methodist University, Wake Forest University, Wingate University, and UNC-Chapel Hill offer PA degrees. Most have seats for 30 or more students. Duke University is tops with about 80 students per class.
Diaz said Pfeiffer will start with 24 students the first year, 36 in the second cohort, hitting a full complement of 45 in the third year. Other students will be in the occupational therapy program.
Pfeiffer capped enrollment at 45 — the most existing clinical sites in the Central Park business development region comprising Stanly, Anson, Davidson, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, and Rowan counties could handle, Diaz said.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges isn’t expected to begin the center’s accreditation process until next month, but student interest is bursting already. Diaz expects 1,000 applications from throughout the country for the first 24 seats, though most likely will come from the immediate eight-county region.
Nontraditional students from diverse backgrounds such as emergency medical technicians, nurses, and pharmacists have expressed strong interest in the program. Pfeiffer graduates, and veterans who meet the qualifications, are guaranteed an interview to give them a leg up on the admissions process.
Diaz, a physician assistant for 30 years, said Pfeiffer will do more than train PAs. The university will advocate for them by seeking to relax North Carolina’s restrictive scope-of-practice laws. The laws limit the services a PA can provide even though they’re qualified for higher level tasks. Critics say those antiquated laws block competition that could drive down medical costs, and save government health programs billions of dollars.
“It’s not about us,” Diaz said. It’s about patients who don’t have local access to doctors, have to travel long distances to seek care, or can’t afford it, leaving them with health conditions worse than statewide averages.
“Pfeiffer University will be a strong voice to work with the state, and work at a national level as well” to strip away regulatory barriers, Diaz said. “That’s one of my purposes. If I leave a legacy this will be it.”