University Spotlight: Fred Carter of Francis Marion, Helping Boost Success of Florence, Pee Dee and South Carolina

With 18 years in place as president of Francis Marion University in Florence, Fred Carter has had time to see the institution’s place in its region change. To Carter, one of the most sweeping changes at FMU is how it has become more influential in people’s lives in Florence and also across the entire Pee Dee. 

That influence has been felt in education and in the cultural life of the region, Carter notes, but also in the business environment as the region underwent an economic transition. “A school becomes more than just a center of instruction and research, it becomes a part of the community,” Carter said.

During his tenure, Francis Marion has established stronger connections far and wide in the region, with people who might not have had FMU on their mind before, he said. That’s a role that the Pee Dee needs because of its special challenges, especially with regard to shortfalls in educational and health outcomes, he said.

Economically, the Pee Dee is much different region now. Thirty years ago, the region was dominated by basic manufacturing, textiles and agriculture, including tobacco. Now the Pee Dee’s economy has a much broader base, Carter said. “It’s a very, very diverse region now.”

One of the economic drivers of the region is health care, and Francis Marion has been increasing its capability to train the next generation of health workers. That includes nurses, of course, but also nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. Francis Marion even hosts resident doctors from the USC School of Medicine who are learning at the region’s health care centers. 

Not only will these staffers serve the region’s health care centers, but they also can extend the reach of the entire health care system, Carter said. Nurse practitioners and other care providers can work in areas that don’t make economic sense for a physician to be located in, such as in many smaller rural communities. That is good for the health of the area, Carter said, and helps businesses by getting people back on their feet quicker, perhaps without a trip to Florence or Sumter for medical care.

Francis Marion works to keep in touch with local businesses and their needs, Carter said. Recent input from the higher-tech manufacturers in the area has guided the university in its efforts to boost the region’s engineering skills. The university heard from some of the manufacturers – a group that includes such companies as Otis Elevators and Honda – that they had a need for process engineers. The companies wanted to be able to hire engineers who had an understanding of manufacturing processes and then were willing to train them in the specifics of their projects. 

The university’s Industrial Engineering program will graduate its first students this academic year. As the program goes forward, it is likely to next offer a program focused on mechanical engineering, Carter said. 

In addition to offering prepared graduates, the university also helps businesses through the consultations offered by its faculty members. One special area of concentration: downtown Florence. 

The downtown has been buoyed in recent years in part by a $35 million Performing Arts Center, built as a partnership between FMU and the city. Francis Marion also has located downtown its new Luther F. Carter Center for Health Sciences, which opened in August. “We’ve been a bit of a catalyst in downtown,” Carter said. 

Because of this and other developments, rents downtown are beginning to rise. Faculty members at Francis Marion are helping businesses adjust to this changing environment, Carter said, through the work of a business incubator. In working with the city, faculty members are offering guidance to new businesses and helping existing businesses examine how they are faring too, he said. The change in downtown’s fortune can mean for a business that it is time to reassess their plans and possibilities, he said. 

“We have to do everything we can to help existing business be more successful in that downtown area,” Carter said.

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