Philander Smith College in Little Rock will receive a $2.5 million CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant to develop the HBCU Center of Excellence in Digital Education and Rural Workforce Development.
The grant, awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will be matched by $638,420 in local dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The project is expected to create 65 jobs and generate $400,000 in private investment, it said.
Philander Smith President Roderick Smothers told Arkansas Business late Tuesday that this grant will give the college the capacity to do three things: help the community recover from COVID-19 by providing people with the upgraded skills they need to work or go back to work, reach rural communities, and prepare its students for the future.
He said the pandemic exposed the digital divide that many rural communities fall victim to, but the new center will allow Philander Smith to reach those communities with “a quality educational product.”
Smothers added, “We're preparing our students today for jobs that have not even been created yet,” and that the skills the center will teach are going to be both timely as well as make an impact that will be fully realized five to seven years down the road.
The match for the grant comes from institutional funds and donations, he said, and Smothers believes that estimated $400,000 in private investment the center is expected to attract will be exceeded.
"Historically Black Colleges and Universities play an important role in creating economic opportunity in their communities, and through this EDA investment Philander Smith College will develop and build a comprehensive digital learning center to provide students with the skills and opportunities needed to earn well-paying, quality jobs," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a news release.
Dennis Alvord, acting assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, said the grant will help renovate Philander Smith's fine arts building, create digital learning opportunities, give technical assistance to entrepreneurs, and direct workforce development outreach and training.
On the renovation portion of the project, Smothers said that would entail increasing the capacity of the auditorium in one of the oldest buildings on campus and that the center hopes to broadcast programs from there one day.
He said the renovations could begin in the next 60-90 days and the center could open around this time next year.
Go. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. French Hill, all Republicans, applauded the grant while Smothers applauded their support of it.
"For almost 150 years, Philander Smith College has played a vital role in educating and improving economic conditions for generations of minority students in Arkansas," Hutchinson said. "The pandemic has also disproportionately affected minority-owned businesses, but I am confident that the funds from this CARES grant will support COVID recovery efforts by creating jobs and also by giving qualified workers the skills they need to succeed in today’s knowledge-based economy."