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Sunday, 04 August 2013 22:00

University Life: Higher education assets key to attracting talent, companies to cities

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The new $40 million L. William Seidman College of Business campus in downtown Grand Rapids is symbolic of higher education’s investment in the city’s downtown over the past decade. The new $40 million L. William Seidman College of Business campus in downtown Grand Rapids is symbolic of higher education’s investment in the city’s downtown over the past decade. COURTESY PHOTO

Editor’s Note: This edition continues the six-part series on the subject of urbanism using examples from across the region to highlight concepts on the minds of local professionals. Practitioners say city building — or placemaking, as it’s often called — is all about people. The way we work, live and play continues to change and the infrastructure around us is always playing catch-up. This series aims to open the discussion about how professionals in West Michigan think the region must adapt to thrive in the new economy.

Many urban advocates agree that strengthening the relationship between education systems and city building is a key tenet to growing livable, prosperous communities.

The city of Kalamazoo is one such West Michigan community that is in the thick of a major transformation, spurred on in large part by the expansion of Western Michigan University.

As one of the nation’s top 100 research-level institutions, WMU is helping the city garner new residents and private investment in a handful of business sectors. With the new medical school ramping up, the city is set to benefit once more from another round of ancillary development.

“Western Michigan University is the most important public asset in all of West Michigan. There is no other single entity that has the impact to change the lives of the people of our region — from the people it employs, to the culture and sports it showcases to most importantly, the access to a tier-one research institution education,” said Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First. “This, compiled with the private dollars WMU and Kalamazoo College bring into our lives through the donations of their supporters, not only directly supports the education of their students but also creates infrastructure for the entire region, infrastructure that directly affects how we live, work and play.”

With Kalamazoo College, a highly regarded private institution, and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the city has a complementary mix of higher education options.

Approximately 90 percent of the people who graduate from KVCC transfer to WMU, said Bob Miller, vice president of community outreach for WMU.

Essentially, the university is a nationally recognized asset with broad resources that are available right in the community’s backyard, Miller said. People in Kalamazoo don’t have to go far to access quality higher education, he added.

Access to public resources like a nationally recognized university adds to the fabric of the community in that its residents and their children don’t have to move or travel far to access the level of educational offerings commonly found in other major metros in the country, Miller said.

The same could also be said for Grand Rapids with its mix of quality public and private institutions. Within the last decade, Grand Valley State University invested heavily in creating a new business school campus in downtown Grand Rapids, the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine opened on the Medical Mile, Van Andel Education Institute started offering doctoral degrees in biomedical research and Ferris State University opened a new molecular diagnostics lab, in addition to investments by Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and others near the downtown area.

The universities act as a draw for companies because of their role in creating talent pipelines for interns and graduates. As a result, companies such as medical device manufacturer Stryker Corp. and high-tech businesses that are located within WMU’s Business Technology and Research (BTR) Park have strong connections to the community, Miller and others said.

Kitchens previously told MiBiz the proximity to and collaborative arrangement with WMU helped convince consumer products company Newell Rubbermaid Inc. to consolidate its research and development functions to a new facility within the BTR.

“In the case of Newell, they were very clear: If they were not going to be in a location where they can see the engineering school at Western, it would be just another location and they didn’t have any interest in it,” Kitchens told MiBiz. “(The BTR) is more than just a site. If you’re a company that takes a site inside the BTR, you have to sign an agreement with the school to collaborate, whether it’s internships, research collaboratives or it’s partnerships. But they also hold themselves accountable to that same commitment to collaborate back. Those intangibles go beyond soil, space or location. It really is that access to collaboration.”

Western itself also serves as one of the major employers in the community with roughly 900 faculty and staff on campus. Given its size, WMU has a significant cultural and intellectual impact, Miller said.

“We also have — in addition to the people the university employs — the number of people who are continually working on projects at the university,” he said. “With the build out of the new $68 million Sangren Hall, there were hundreds of trades people employed, and those are indirect jobs the university creates.”

Moreover, WMU annually contributes in excess of $800 million to the regional economy, according to estimates. Numerous studies also show that research-level institutions with medical schools take in more state and federal grant money than those institutions who lack such amenities.

With the growth of WMU, Miller and others see the potential for Kalamazoo to take on a role in West Michigan much like Ann Arbor has in southeast Michigan because of the University of Michigan.

“It’s important to look how that community has changed because of U-of-M,” he said. “It’s still difficult to imagine what WMU and the medical school will mean to the community in 10, 20, 50 years. Are we going to (become like) U-of-M next year? No, but once we’ve been around as long they have in Ann Arbor, there should be a profound impact here.”

Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., the city’s placemaking outlet, is tracking the changes in demographics and amenities offered in the city and is polling students from KVCC and WMU to ask them why and how often they visit the downtown area.

“More and more students frequent downtown each year,” said Rob Peterson, business recruitment and retention manager for DKI. “What they’re coming down for has broadened in the last five to 10 years, and many are coming down on weekdays instead of just weekends, visiting restaurants and going to bars and other shops.”

The list varies for what students would like to see more of downtown, he said.

“Everyone wants to see more retail and more national retailers come downtown,” he said. “That will always be a struggle because the (national retail chains) don’t want to change their model, and the city is not yet large enough for an influx of national retail.”

Still, the city is thriving on niche and boutique shops to fill the downtown mall and other storefronts. With growing demand for housing from students and professionals entering the community, more opportunities for city building exist, Peterson said.

Miller agreed.

“The city has changed and evolved and is something different than what it once was,” he said. “There is very little retail vacancy and residential vacancy is less than 2 percent. All of this wouldn’t have happened without existence of the university.”


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