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Community Arboretum launches fundraising campaign to replace gazebo

Organizers at the Community Arboretum at Virginia Western hope to soon replace the gardens’ aging gazebo.

While the arboretum celebrated its 25th anniversary in May 2018, Virginia Western students constructed the gazebo a couple of years prior to the garden’s official dedication. In the years since then, numerous weddings and musical performances have been staged at the structure, which serves as a focal point of the arboretum.

Clark BeCraft, horticulture program coordinator, is unable utilize student volunteers this time around due to regulations regarding construction on state property. “So it’s costing us more than it did in the past to accomplish improvements,” BeCraft explained.

Members of the arboretum’s advisory board already have $25,000 in seed money to put toward the new gazebo, which will cost about $70,000. They hope to raise about 20 percent of the cost by the beginning of 2020 by selling engraved pavers which will go on the floor of the gazebo and the ground around it. “They can be engraved in memory or in honor of someone,” BeCraft said.

Sponsorships will be sold for:

  • $1,000 for an 8 X 8 paver (engraved paver will be placed under roof of gazebo. Includes certificate and small keepsake replica paver)
  • $500 for a 4 X 8 paver (engraved paver will be placed under roof of gazebo; includes certificate)
  • $250 for a 4 X 8 paver (engraved paver will be placed under roof of gazebo)
  • $150 for a 4 X 8 paver (engraved paver will be placed around the outside of the gazebo

Pavers can be purchased online at: https://connect.clickandpledge.com/w/form/79059e66-82cf-43b7-b8f8-5aec37c39f52.

Many arboretum visitors mistakenly assume that taxpayers cover the attraction’s upkeep, according to BeCraft. When the Commonwealth of Virginia originally donated the two acres of the Virginia Western campus for the arboretum, organizers agreed to raise the money to build the gardens and maintain them.

Until now, proceeds from popular plant sales and membership fees to the Friends of the Arboretum program mostly covered the attraction’s day-to-day expenses. Updating several aging areas of the arboretum will require additional funding sources.  “We need more money to take the arboretum into the next 25 years,” BeCraft said.

By the time the Community Arboretum reaches its 30th anniversary, BeCraft hopes the new gazebo will be in place and three of the 11 gardens will be renovated.

Virginia Western horticulture students under the direction of Lee Hipp, the well-known former director of the department, led the charge in the 1980s to create a public garden for the college and the public. Individuals, business owners and organizations in the Roanoke Valley raised $150,000 over a decade for the construction of the arboretum, which was dedicated in 1993. 

The public is welcome to visit the arboretum from sunrise to sunset. It includes 11 separate gardens and plant collections which are home to approximately 700 labeled plant taxa.

Local tech company with VWCC connections partners with NASA

When scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) capture future pictures of Earth’s atmosphere, they might end up using technology containing components manufactured by former Virginia Western Community College faculty and students. 

Based in Fincastle, Va., Micro Harmonics Corporation (MHC) is a technology company that specializes in the creation of millimeter-wave components. The parts created by the company allow users to access higher frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, and can be used for a number of scientific and commercial purposes. For example, automated cars, 5g wireless broadband access and airport security scanners all utilize millimeter-wave technology. The components are also used by NASA for a number of applications, including in the instruments that capture images of the Earth’s ozone layer.

“We’ve been working under NASA funding through various contracts for the past four years,” MHC chief executive officer David Porterfield said. “NASA’s been a big pusher of all these technologies.”

Founded in 2008, MHC is headed by Porterfield and his sister, former Virginia Western professor Diane Kees. She taught engineering and mechatronics classes before joining the company full time in 2017. Since acquiring a NASA small business innovation research grant worth $750,000, Porterfield and Kees have worked diligently to develop millimeter-wave components that can be used by commercial enterprises and government agencies alike.

The company recently won an additional two-year contract worth $750,000 from NASA to further develop some of its products; that money will be used, in part, to develop components that can function at cryogenic temperatures. So far, MHC has hired three graduates of Virginia Western’s Mechatronics Systems Engineering Technology program to work in its Fincastle laboratory.

“We actually offer tuition reimbursement to employees,” Kees said. “We try to keep our students in school so they’ll complete the mechatronics program.”

Kees, who continued working at Virginia Western for two years after joining MHC, said that the company has had an easy time recruiting talented students. The demand for millimeter-wave technology is expected to grow by 40 percent each year over the next seven years, and its applications will only expand with time.

“When I was teaching at (Virginia) Western and … I mentioned that we first got the contract through NASA JPL, all my students’ jaws dropped,” Kees said. “That was so exciting for them, that we got a contract with the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA.”

The company is also looking for opportunities to improve their marketing and sales strategies. In May 2019, MHC was one of six companies to be accepted to the Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP), a Southwest Virginia business accelerator that helps science, technology, engineering, math and health (STEM-H) companies test the viability and marketability of their products. That yearlong program has provided MHC with access to a number of business experts in the area, as well as with $20,000 in seed capital. 

“The RAMP program is helping us in that transition to become a viable commercial business,” Kees said. “In the meantime, we’re still working with NASA. They like what we’ve given them, and they’re giving us more contracts.”

Porterfield said that as the company continues to expand its product offerings, it will seek out more talented employees, particularly through the mechatronics program at Virginia Western.

“We’re small now. We’re only five full-time employees and a part-time consultant who lives in the area,” Porterfield said. “But I could see us growing pretty rapidly.”

Chef Polfelt awarded Endowed Teaching Chair

The Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation has awarded the Donald G. Smith Endowed Teaching Chair to Ted Polfelt, an award-winning local chef and instructor in the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program.

The Donald G. Smith Endowed Teaching Chair is intended to honor an outstanding Virginia Western instructor who advances the understanding of business management principles in his or her coursework, regardless of academic discipline. The honored teacher may use the funds to enhance the quality of his or her curriculum, facilities or instruction in any way he or she deems necessary.

Polfelt plans to host a culinary competition and educational seminar at Virginia Western that will give students the opportunity to compete in a professional-level “culinary salon” without the cost of travel. The competition would be open to students and culinary professionals alike, and draw on judges sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation (ACF).

The endowed chair is named for the late Don Smith, who led Roanoke Electric Steel and was a Director Emeriti of the Educational Foundation. Steel Dynamics Inc., formerly Roanoke Electric Steel, established the endowed chair in 2006 with a $100,000 gift to honor Smith’s longtime leadership. Smith was president of Roanoke Steel from 1985 to 2004 and worked for the company 49 years.

Polfelt said instructors in the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program “literally apply business management principles into everything we do. We talk about utilizing every piece of animal or vegetable to maximize profits, as well as how to maintain your professional appearance to separate yourself in the job market.”

Acquiring business management skills early in a hospitality industry career is critical, Polfelt said. Too often, talented culinary students don’t understand the importance of maintaining core costs such as labor, food and rental. He offers, as an example, the idea of opening a coffee shop. “It sounds like a great business plan: Cheap to produce, low labor costs and great cost margins. But how many cups do you have to sell to cover your $2,000 lease and the rest of the expenditures?

“I like seeing the ‘A-ha’ moment in our students, when the picture of entrepreneurship becomes a little bit clearer,” he said.

The Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program is housed in newly expanded space at the Claude Moore Educational Complex, which is part of the Roanoke Higher Education Center in the historic Gainsboro neighborhood. The program currently enrolls 308 students who are pursuing an Associate of Applied Science degree. Polfelt has been an instructor in the program since 2012.

“Ted’s project proposal is a creative and interactive way to marry our student’s culinary college tutelage with real-world experience and skills,” said Yvonne Campbell, Dean of Virginia Western’s School of Business, Technology & Trades. “He has smartly structured the project event agenda so that the experience increases student exposure to business principles employed in culinary arts at a level experienced by few.

“Seeing firsthand practical application of entrepreneurship by talented, dedicated experts is an important career and life lesson, and, honestly, can be life-changing for many of our students.”

Polfelt’s endowed chair appointment spans the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years. He is the third recipient of the Donald G. Smith Endowed Teaching Chair, following Alexander Scott, an associate professor of Spanish, and Cristin Barrett, an assistant professor of mathematics.

Polfelt previously was named the 2016 ACF Southeast Region Chef of the Year and was a semi-finalist for National Chef of the Year. He has also won more than 20 medals competing in ACF-sanctioned competitions across the country. He is currently the Vice President of the Southwest Virginia Chapter and is the Chair of the National Certification Commissions Appeals Sub-Committee. He also serves as Corporate Chef for Jefferson Street Management Group.