Every community needs a guy like Mike Larkin. He’s an economic development machine!
You may not have heard his name yet, but I suspect you will, over and over again. He’s bringing his singular energy and focus to his work, establishing Ignite - Life Pacific College while also repurposing the former Main Street Baptist Church into an academic, arts, and community center under a new non-religious non-profit called On Main Street Inc. I met with him to ask about his process.
For background, he said that LPC Ignite is one of two colleges belonging to the Foursquare Church, a Christian denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in the Los Angeles in 1923. She was a traveling evangelist in the early 20th Century. “She was charismatic, magnetic. She broke the mold for women in ministry leadership roles and set a precedent for practical hands-on community ministry.”
She opened a ministry training center in California that over time became Life Pacific College. A second college was established in Mt. Vernon, Ohio and in the early 1980s moved just off Route 8, south of Christiansburg, and named Life Bible College East. The East Coast campus closed in 2003 and the property was transformed into CrossPointe Conference Center.
Meanwhile, Mike got a slew of degrees and pursued a varied career as a police officer, a YMCA executive, a minister, and a denomination executive overseeing global operations. He founded Ignite Life Pacific College in 2008 and was asked by the denomination to move the school from the Los Angeles area to Christiansburg in 2011.
Mike’s intention in founding the school was to provide general education and theology courses that are affordable while also presenting practical, hands-on opportunities for students to prepare them for their future. He wanted to make his college an integral part of its community. In the last 5-1/2 years, his students have contributed an astonishing 82,000 documented hours of volunteer service! On a weekly basis students serve 5-10 hours in the community, sending teams of students to the Roanoke Rescue Mission, Montgomery County Museum, Christiansburg Park and Rec department, and various other non-profit organizations. Partnering with Kiwanis and the Wilderness Trail Festival each fall is a favorite with the students.
“When we moved here in 2011, I drove past the old Baptist Church on Main Street and saw ‘For Sale’ signs. I saw potential. Our goal is to be in the community and not in a bubble on the hill.” So On Main Street Inc. was formed to purchase the old Baptist Church and reconstruction is underway. They gutted much of the building and built classrooms, a library, and administration offices. The 1908 structure on the corner is being restored to original beauty for weddings, banquets and meetings. In the larger hall they removed the pews to allow for more flexibility as a music, banquet and lecture hall. They found a church in Tennessee that had suffered the loss of their pews in a flood, and donated to them. The buildings are opening up in stages for college and community use.
“The intent of what we’re doing is to create community, to revitalize the town and the economy, and to get our students in downtown Christiansburg. That fits in exactly with our perception of the vision of the town leaders. Recreation. Entertainment. The Arts. Crooked Road and traditional music.”
So they’ll be bringing music events to the center, and not solely religious. For example they’ll be hosting a JAM chapter, the Junior Appalachian Musician after school program that teaches children to play traditional roots music. They’ll host weddings and receptions.
He said the renovation is coming along beautifully. The ultimate goal is to create a community showcase. They want self-supporting events so they don’t pass on costs to the students. However students are learning project and event management, show production, and other skills.
“We want graduates who will launch into organizational management, ministry leadership, strategic leadership positions and more. We want a self-sustaining model for a small college that provides employment and advancement opportunities for our students and a revitalization project for downtown.
“My wife and I knew that in moving from Southern California to Christiansburg, it would be very different. Rather than come with ideas for change and expansion we came to immerse into the community first. The change was actually in me. I think it’s a wonderful indication of the quality of life. The pace. The kindness.
“It’s a friendly culture and an amazing place to live and work. We’ve been under the radar. We’re here to serve and give. Up until now we’ve been the best-kept secret in town. Thanks to our hard working students we’re starting to make ourselves known.”