Remarks from the January 28, 2021 High Country Economic Kickoff

Thursday, January 28, 2021

High Country Economic Kickoff event
Thursday, January 28, 2021

Remarks by Sheri Everts, Chancellor

Good morning! I am Sheri Everts, Chancellor of Appalachian State University, and it is my honor to address you this morning. 

I’d like to begin with a heartfelt thank you to for the well-wishes, prayers and gifts from so many of you as I recover from breast cancer surgery earlier this month. I am doing very well, and appreciate your support.

I’d like to convey my special thanks to David Jackson, who serves this community so generously and with great leadership, for inviting me to speak today.  

I would also like to extend a special thank you to the Boone and Blowing Rock Chambers of Commerce for hosting this virtual event in the lovely Appalachian Theatre. I am very pleased our university TV station, AppTV, is helping make this important annual event accessible for today’s participants.

App State and the High Country community have a history of working together to support local citizens and businesses that spans more than 120 years. The value of this partnership has been especially evident during the last year, and I extend my thanks to all of you as we work together to keep our community strong through the challenges and hardships of the global pandemic.

At App State, supporting our region has always been central to our history and our educational mission. As the largest employer and educational institution in the region, we have prioritized being a partner in the local, regional and state responses to the pandemic, while also planning for a future in which COVID-19 is not the primary driver of our daily decision-making.

It has been more than a year since COVID-19 campus planning discussions first began at our university, and our formal response efforts have been underway for more than three hundred days. Throughout this time, we have relied on national, state and local expertise – and public health data – to make informed decisions, keeping the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and the greater community paramount. 

As you are likely aware, we delayed the return to campus for spring semester until February first, and during this time, we are utilizing teleworking to the greatest extent possible, but our campus is open, with emergency management protocols activated and operational modifications and precautions in place.

As we return students to campus, courses will again be taught face-to-face, as well as in fully remote and hybrid formats. Required face coverings and daily health assessments, physically distanced seating in classrooms, and enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures are all still in place. 

  • We are continuing a robust COVID-19 surveillance testing schedule, providing important data to local public health so we can work together to identify and quickly respond to positive cases. So far we have conducted more than 35,000 Covid- 19 tests helping to keep community testing lines shorter while also protecting our university and community with accurate and early responses to positive cases.  Also, last semester, we began preliminary wastewater testing research, which we will continue with our residence halls to help us further refine our targeted testing strategy. 
  • To date, we have provided nearly one hundred thousand face coverings to our campus community, and we are in the process of distributing five new washable, reusable face coverings to each student, faculty and staff member.
  • The university has provided more than ten thousand meals to members of the university and greater community in isolation and quarantine, and we have fulfilled more than 40 requests from local agencies for lodging, personal protective equipment and other resource needs.
  • App State will assist with North Carolina’s COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan for rural areas. We submitted an application to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to be an open community site for vaccine distribution, so we may administer vaccines to community members — as well as to students, faculty and staff. 

As everyone participating in this event today knows all too well, managing business operations during a global pandemic presents immense challenges. We have several strategies in place to help mitigate financial impacts on our Mountaineers and on the local community:

  • At the start of the pandemic, we immediately implemented essential spending guidelines to reduce costs and maximize opportunities for savings. We continue employing every avenue to reduce the impact on our employees. While some personnel have faced furlough, we are utilizing every option to keep our staff working, including reassignment of duties. 
  • We have awarded nearly seven million dollars in grants to students in need through the CARES Act and the university’s Mountaineer Emergency Fund, and have also added flexibility to our employee emergency loan program to make funds more accessible for employees facing hardship.

  • During the pandemic, Governor Cooper declared construction projects as critical and essential. Our ability to continue making progress on projects across campus provides steady work for more than 300 workers, which helps power our local economy, and staying on time keeps us on budget, which reduces the impact of delayed projects costs to the state.
  • This fall, we cut the ribbons on two of our four new residence halls, as well as Kidd Brewer Stadium’s north end zone facility, which will provide space for athletic, academic and community uses. The much-needed renovation of one of our most-used academic buildings, Sanford Hall, is nearly complete, and it will be open for spring 2021 classes. Laurel Creek Hall, our next residence hall scheduled to open in the fall, is well underway and will provide approximately 640 student beds. 

In the midst of a coordinated response to a global pandemic, we remain focused on our academic mission and other important goals in 2021.

  • Our faculty and academic leaders focus on making real and powerful differences for our local community. From the work of Dr. Kurt Michael, who is partnering with our local school systems on suicide prevention for teens, to Dr. Baker Perry, whose climate research takes place on Grandfather Mountain and Mount Everest, App State is committed to excellence in teaching… and to ensuring our students’ research and learning goes beyond the classroom to serve our community and state.
  • COVID-19 increased the caseload of our Small Business and Technology Development Center by four times its typical number of clients, as the center’s consultants helped our state’s small businesses pivot and respond to the pandemic.
  • As food insecurity becomes more prominent during this global health crisis, our Food Resource Hub continues to provide food and personal care items to Mountaineers in need.
  • App State’s Staff Senate is proud of its longstanding commitment of service to the local community. Last fall was the 40th year of their AppKids project to provide items to local children in need; they support the App Builds a Home initiative to build homes for local High Country residents, and they are currently partnering with High Country 365 to support and promote the sale of virtual dining cards for local businesses.
  • We remain focused on strengthening the culture of diversity and inclusion on our campus and in our community. Each year since my arrival at App State, we have steadily increased the racial diversity of our university population. Since 2014, we have seen a ninety-seven percent increase in first-year, underrepresented students. As we become a more diverse campus, we are also broadening the ways we become a more inclusive community. Last summer, I established a Diversity and Inclusion Accountability Team, which champions our work toward inclusive excellence. We were very pleased to host implicit bias certification training for local law enforcement agencies in the fall, and I look forward to awarding our second annual Chancellor’s Awards for Inclusive Excellence on our campus and in the community very soon.
  • Our new Climate Action Plan is slated to be released early this year. This climate action blueprint will provide an in-depth, practical analysis of the action steps and timeline for App State to reach carbon neutrality, with an ultimate goal of climate neutrality. One step in this plan includes continuing to explore renewable power options. New River Light and Power, the utility company owned by App State, will continue purchasing solar power on the open market for its residential and commercial customers, as well as for the university. New River Light and Power also recently completed its grant-funded project to remove the historic Payne Branch dam from the New River’s Middle Fork. The improved water quality, enhanced wildlife habitat and more scenic environment will help enhance the Middle Fork Greenway, a win-win-win for our environment and the local attraction economy which also offers important social benefits.
  • Our future plans include an Innovation Campus that will serve as an academic, economic and innovation hub for Western North Carolina. This will further our vibrant university and community partnership as we exchange and incubate ideas for the social and economic betterment of our region.

We certainly all look forward to the days when this meeting can take place in person, when our classrooms, residence halls and campus are alive with students; when our football stadium holds a crowd of cheering fans; and when local businesses are no longer bound by capacity limits.

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to speak with you today. We are proud to be part of the High Country, and to continue our history of uniting with you to strengthen our communities and brighten our shared future.