A new $1.8 million technology hub is planned for late summer at the site of a historic railroad depot in North Little Rock, and Shorter College President Jerome Green said he expects it to play a critical role in revitalizing the East Broadway neighborhood that surrounds it.
The plans for the depot were announced at a news conference last week, during which Green was joined by city officials and Jorge Ayala, regional director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. A $1.2 million grant from the federal agency also announced Monday will be used to fund the project. In total, the effort is estimated to cost $1.8 million.
In addition to classrooms, office spaces and a computer technology equipment center, the site will also house a credit union.
The Rock Island Railroad Depot is located at 1201 E. Fourth St., several blocks east of Interstate 30, just north of East Broadway and about three quarters of a mile southeast from Shorter College's Locust Street address. Built in 1913, it became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
North Little Rock's City Council approved the lease of the depot to Shorter College in December 2020, according to mayor's office spokesperson Shara Hutchcraft.
"We believe that what we are doing in conjunction with the city, economically, will improve and increase the viability of the area and encourage others to invest," Green said.
The computer courses to be offered through the technology hub aren't part of Shorter College's associate degree program, but will instead be available for certification.
"They are specifically designed to give a person a recognized skill set in 21st-century skills, so that they are able to immediately go into the workforce and have something that they are certified to be able to do," Green said.
Courses will cover such topics as computer coding and programming, as well as skills surrounding cryptocurrency and cybersecurity.
According to Green, anyone can take them, whether or not they graduated from high school. That accessibility is important to the president; a critical part of Shorter College's mission is to make education and employment available to students who might not otherwise get the opportunity, he said. For instance, the school offers the largest prison education program in the state, according to Green.
"We want the 4.0 people to come," he said. "But we want everybody else to come who has the ability to either achieve a college degree or obtain a certificate to be able to be a positive, contributing citizen."
A partnership between Shorter College and IBM allows the former to offer the latter's teaching modules, and to offer micro-credentials for those who complete the courses. These micro-credentials reflect students' demonstrated knowledge and ability surrounding particular subject areas.
At least three studies on alternative credentials suggest they sometimes spark confusion between employers, colleges and students, Inside Higher Ed reported in March. However, the studies suggested the three groups also expressed enthusiasm about putting them to use in the workforce. Green said he believes the credentials are an effective way for students to show their skills to potential employers.
"If a person might go apply for a job and say, 'Oh, I've got a degree from a college,' and an employer says, 'I know you've got a degree, but what can you do?'" Green said. "In this case, the person who has got a certificate in one of our programs can say 'I can do coding, I can do blockchain, and here's my certification, and it's from Shorter College, and it's backed up by IBM.'"
To bolster these new course offerings, the college plans to establish an advisory board made up of local business figures. This board will provide updates on what skills they most desire in potential employees, and the school will in turn develop or tweak their course offerings to meet those local needs. The results, according to Green, will be greater opportunities for people to reenter the workforce and for businesses to hire for positions that have been difficult to keep filled since employees first left in droves during the pandemic and the lockdowns that followed.
"It's the logical thing to do in education," he said. "We are trying to serve the needs of the people."
Shorter College also plans to open a credit union at the depot. According to Green, the financial institution is also a key aspect of its strategy to expand economic independence and prosperity to the East Broadway area. The credit union will serve students, faculty and staff, but will also be available to the broader public.
Green said one of the college's largest programs is in entrepreneurial business studies, a field that allows people whose backgrounds may make them less favorable to potential employers to achieve financial success by creating jobs for themselves.
"But in my view, that's less than realistic unless you've got a financial institution so that they have access to capital," he said. "You can have all the skills, but if you don't have access to capital you can't move from point A to point B."
The introduction of a credit union at the technology hub will also introduce an institutional bank to a community that currently lacks one, according to Green.
"When you're dealing with a disadvantaged community, many of them are unbanked," he said. "They've never had an institutional bank in their life."
As a result, residents who wish to buy a car or house or pursue an entrepreneurial venture must often seek high-interest loans or visit unfamiliar financial institutions outside of their neighborhood.
According to the International Monetary Fund, banking institutions are essential to the healthy function of economies. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said in a 2019 report that 7.1% of Arkansas households were unbanked, well above the national average of 5.4%.
The rates of unbanked and underbanked adults in the U.S. in 2020 were higher among those with lower income and less education and among Black and Hispanic adults, according to the Federal Reserve.
Green said he believes the opening of the credit union, alongside the rest of the services the technology hub plans to offer, will increase the area's economic viability in the eyes of others, encouraging them to invest their money there.
James Cain, spokesperson for the college, said he also believes that people encouraged to do their business in the eastern part of the city are also more likely to spend their money in the East Broadway area, further bolstering its economy.
"It's going to bring more people here," he said, adding that an anchor project like the hub can "revitalize the whole community."
Hutchcraft, the spokesperson for North Little Rock Mayor Terry Hartwick, agreed the efforts around the depot will help to build the community's infrastructure.
"That workforce training, that's just vital to our community," she said.
It reflects a recent increase in opportunities throughout the eastern part of the city. In 2020, Amazon announced that it would open a 1-million-square-foot fulfillment center in North Little Rock. In August of this year, Dollar General announced plans to open an enormous distribution center, she said. Later that month, suburban Cleveland-based Federal Metal said they would open a facility to shred aluminum and copper.
Such developments played a key role in the creation of roughly 3,000 additional jobs since the pandemic arrived in Arkansas in 2020, Hutchcraft said.
According to the spokesperson, Hartwick and the city's economic development team have worked closely with Green on their goals.
"He's about networking, partnerships and it's a win-win for everyone," she said of the mayor.
Discussion over converting the depot to a Shorter College space first began in 2020, and the school entered into its lease for the space that December. Since then, Hutchcraft said there's been a "constant influx" of efforts to maintain the depot and prepare it for use.
The space is currently empty but clean, and electricity runs through the building. Voices and footsteps from people who enter the space echo off the walls and tall ceiling, which the city has performed some maintenance on to help ensure the building remains habitable.
"There's not much that needs to be done," Cain said.
According to the spokesperson, the college hopes to have the technology hub ready by fall of next year.
First, though, it will have to finish what renovations remain to be done. Green said he hopes the bidding process for the work will be done in January, with groundbreaking to begin in February.
The college will also have to hire staff to fill openings at the center, and will seek insight from residents.
"We're going to be looking for input from this community as to what they want us to offer," he said.
One question in particular remains to be answered, according to Green: Where will students' money to enroll in classes at the hub come from?
The president said many hopeful students will not have much money for tuition, so the school will have to determine how and who will ultimately pay for that.
"Would we have scholarships or financial aid for them?" he asked. "Those are questions that will have to be determined."
Once the technology hub opens, Shorter College hopes to acquire the empty land surrounding the site. Initially, the college believed the city owned the land, but it later determined it is owned by private investors. Green said the college is in dialogue with those owners as the school would like to develop the space for community-based activities. He said one of the options it is exploring is turning the area into a park, for instance.
According to the president, Shorter College also hopes to develop a parkway or dedicated bicycle trail in partnership with the city between the hub and the school's main campus. He admitted, though, that he hasn't yet spoken with city officials about the idea.
"This is just me dreaming," he said.
The depot, constructed in 1913, was designed in the "Mediterranean style" common to other Rock Island Railroad Company depots of the time. In their application for the site to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program wrote that it "is locally significant both for its status as an outstanding example" of such a depot after the turn of the century and "for its association with the important role played by railroads in the growth of the city of North Little Rock ... in the early twentieth century."
The depot allowed Argenta residents access to a major railroad providing transportation to Memphis and played a role in the development of the neighborhood as an active Southern military post, according to the application.
"The growth and development of North Little Rock has always been intimately tied to the railroads that served its residents, energized its comercial districts, and employed a large share of its working force," the application concludes. "The Rock Island-Argenta Depot is one of the finest surviving railroad structures from the era of most rapid growth in the city of Argenta and the only one rendered in this architectural style."