LUMBERTON — Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget calls for cutting funds for the BioAgriculture Center at Robeson Community College, a move that could stymie agricultural programs focusing on workforce development, job creation and business recruitment — and eliminate existing jobs.
The budget proposed by the governor eliminates about $600,000 for the North Carolina Community College BioNetwork’s Mobile Launch Pad for Careers — which is not administered through the center at RCC — and the BioAgriculture Center on RCC’s campus. Built in 2004, the BioAgriculture Center is one of seven centers statewide that make up the North Carolina Community College BioNetwork, a network of centers that focus on biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and industries related to the life sciences.
The proposed cuts for the center at RCC would be about $360,000, according to Pamela Hilbert, the college’s president. That figure is the center’s total annual budget, enough to force its closing and the elimination of three jobs.
“That money has been used as leverage to bring over $1 million in grants into the community,” Hilbert said.
She added that she hopes state legislators will reconsider cutting funding to the center, which she said is an important link in the community college system’s BioNetwork.
“Every center is an important piece connecting the system together,” she said.
Members of Robeson County’s state legislative delegation, all Democrats, are not ready to concede that the General Assembly will go along with the governor’s proposal. McCrory is a Republican.
“It’s early yet. There’s still a lot of negotiations going on,” Rep. Garland Pierce said. “The center is important to the county and the students participating in the center’s programs. I personally will fight to keep it funded.”
State Sen. Michael Walters emphasized the importance of the BioAgriculture Center to Robeson and surrounding counties.
“It’s on the cutting edge of technology,” Walters said. “It can help in a lot of areas of research. It serves as an opportunity to expand the agricultural economy and create jobs.”
According to the BioNetwork’s website, the BioAgriculture Center at RCC coordinates “educational and training activities to help ensure the state has a well-trained BioAgriculture technology workforce.”
The center on the campus of RCC has developed a Green Zone featuring a solar greenhouse where farmers can learn how to extend crop production. There is also an arrangement of solar panels that is used to demonstrate ways of saving energy.
For RCC manufacturing students, the center serves as a site to learn how to build greenhouses and solar panels, as well as how to maintain farm equipment.
“Our main goal is to provide workforce development in life sciences and the area of sustainable agriculture,” said Leslie Lowry, the center’s manager. “We provide education not just for those in Robeson County, but for those statewide.”
According to Lowry, the BioAgriculture Center partners with public schools, universities and colleges, Farm Bureau and the state’s Cooperative Extension offices to promote and provide agricultural training. Lowry said these partnerships result in the most current programs and training for both large-scale farmers and those who lean toward niche farming.