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A university footprint downtown will share arts and learning with the community

It’s been more than 15 years since Coastal Carolina University students could attend some of their classes off campus at Myrtle Beach locations.

So when the growing university was presented with the chance to anchor the city’s downtown revitalization efforts with a theater, teaching college, and an innovative K-8 lab school, David DeCenzo says it was the ideal opportunity.

“There is a market for us to be there,” the university president said in a recent interview. “As we began looking for opportunities, discussions with the city started to gel and become the perfect solution.”

“This would benefit the city as part of their revitalization, but would also give us the footprint back in Myrtle Beach that we had so many years ago,” DeCenzo said.

An agreement has been reached to build the theater and architectural designs are underway. 

City and university officials have been working out the details for a memorandum of understanding to move forward with the lab school and teacher college.

The Myrtle Beach City Council is scheduled to vote on that agreement at their Tuesday meeting.

DeCenzo says these expansions will create a new avenue for the university to once again share learning opportunities outside of the traditional campus setting.

“We don’t just exist in this community, we’re part of its fabric,” DeCenzo said.

“We want to give back to the community, but we can’t do that by being totally isolated,” DeCenzo said.

The expansions will be notably beneficial to students as well. 

CCU’s talented theater and music students will get the on-the-job training their craft requires once they stretch out from secluded performing spaces on campus to a downtown theater on the main thoroughfare — where marque lights will flash to millions of tourists and residents attracting vast new audiences.

Additionally, the creation of a lab school downtown as well as the new theater has the potential to be a marketing bonanza for the university to recruit more students.

“We’ve got to have a presence in Myrtle Beach,” DeCenzo said.

Planting CCU’s flag in a newly renovated downtown is DeCenzo’s primary goal as he transitions from the leader of a university to join the ranks of Grand Strand retiree over the next year. 

DeCenzo served as president for 13 years, and the fully accredited institution now offers more than two dozen masters degree programs and two doctoral programs. 

Compared to other American universities that have existed for centuries, CCU is still relatively new, having started as a community college half a decade ago. 

This makes fundraising and growing the university’s endowment a challenge, DeCenzo said.

“The bulk of our graduates are still building their wealth, taking care of their families,” DeCenzo said.

“You don’t have that 85-year-old graduate who is in a position to write a multi-million dollar check,” DeCenzo said.

The endowment has grown more than $20 million under DeCenzo’s leadership; money that is earmarked for student scholarships and academic programs.

Expanding the university’s offerings downtown with new classrooms to instruct future teachers and adding new lab school — that’s going to require significant financial contributions from the community.

DeCenzo’s legacy

From his first days as president in 2007, DeCenzo says he made a simple pledge to future graduates — “their degree would be worth more tomorrow, than it is today.”

That meant carefully crafting CCU’s brand, while maintaining a family, homestyle atmosphere, as the institution began drawing national and international attention — especially after the Chanticleers NCAA baseball championship in 2016.

The university’s reputation today, is what makes DeCenzo most proud.

“I really do believe that Coastal Carolina University is a name that people recognize far beyond the five county area that we serve. And I think the degree is worth a whole lot more today,” DeCenzo said.

When DeCenzo steps down in 2021, he will take with him a most unusual, and very personal retirement present, of which he says he will be his greatest honor.

“Of my four children, three have their degrees from Coastal — with my signature as president on their diploma.”

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