When it comes to solving big problems, there’s nothing wrong with taking a page from the playbook of a competitor.
Western State Colorado University officials recently released a report that quantifies the school’s economic impact to Gunnison County at more than $70 million annually. They urged City of Gunnison leaders last week to consider that more must to done to integrate Western with the county’s economy.
“Both the University and community leaders should address this issue more directly than they have in the past,” writes Gunnison-based economist Paul Holden, the report’s author.
There’s little question in our minds that if it’s prosperity the valley-wide community wants, Western is well positioned to lead the charge. Initiatives such as the IceLab are a launchpad for entrepreneurship that can bolster an economy historically reliant upon tourism and construction.
Holden’s report suggests that increasing enrollment at the university by 25 percent could generate another $8 million in tuition and fees alone. So, why not let that figure serve as the goal that officials at the city and Western work together to achieve?
In Grand Junction, Colorado Mesa University and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce have created the “CMU 20000 Project” — the objective of which is to increase enrollment from about 10,000 to 15,000 and enlist 5,000 supporters from within the city. We see no reason why Western and city leaders shouldn’t form a similar pact tied to a specific enrollment goal.
Grand Junction chamber President and CEO Diane Schwenke noted economic development as the primary motive behind the agreement. The initiative has resulted in business leaders, elected officials, Mesa faculty and students all putting heads together to come up with ideas for meeting the objective — for example, such measures as painting the school’s mascot on buses and renaming streets.
The details of such an agreement are beside the point. They’re for city and university leaders to hash out — or to at least seek from the community. Rather, it’s measurable results that are missing from the current relationship.
How the larger community can benefit Western has been talked about ad nauseum since, we suspect, the institution formerly known as Western State College first formed.
In the past, the city has supported Western in a wide variety of ways — from helping fund recruiting efforts to offering internships for students. But such measures seem to have only supported the university broadly, without explicitly sharing in the commitment to achieve success.
There’s already momentum building in Gunnison for new initiatives that improve the university experience for students. For instance, city leaders are contemplating a better defined connection between campus and downtown.
There, we see an opportunity for mutual benefit. What may make a student feel more engaged and likely to remain at Western could also help direct visitors to the city’s center of commerce — potentially spurring spending at downtown businesses.
The Gunnison chamber certainly could be involved in a more concrete commitment — particularly to help drum up support among businesses — but we see the greatest opportunity for impact by the city taking the lead. Especially given efforts such as the Downtown Vibrancy Initiative which city leaders are directing.
With some organizational help from the city or chamber, businesses could offer incentives to attract students to visit Gunnison in tandem with existing recruiting efforts. Maybe that means discounts on hotels or meals, or free ski passes or mountain bike rentals. Something to entice students, and their families, to explore the wonders the area has to offer.
From new and interesting events that highlight the area’s offerings to efforts by the university to get community members on campus — say, giving out tickets to athletic competitions — we see numerous avenues that a rekindled partnership could take.
It should be recognized that to receive the community’s support, Western leaders too must make an effort to reach out and engage residents.
Of course, these are only a few concepts. We suspect that even bigger and better ideas would result from a more clearly defined partnership.
In the spirit of a valley-wide movement that’s taken root in recent years aimed at solving problems together, we welcome a new level of commitment between Western and the city. It’s time officials at both institutions realize their goals are basically the same — and figure out ways collectively to achieve those ends.
(This article represents the opinion of the Times editorial board, comprised of Editor Will Shoemaker, Publisher Chris Dickey and Staff Writer Chris Rourke.)