Educating the economy 

Western towns court colleges to boost economy, culture

Faced with the chance to lure a new college to town, the citizens of Lander, Wyo., rolled out a welcome mat of cash.

Residents raised nearly $300,000 to show Wyoming Catholic College--little more than a dream of state Catholic leaders in 2005 --just how much the community wanted Wyoming's first private four-year college.

"Economically, for a community, it is very attractive," says Dave Kellogg, president of LEADER Corporation, a Lander-based economic development group. "It's very clean, it's not a smokestack."

A college can be an economic boon for a community. Schools bring high-skilled jobs, and students and faculty spend money locally. North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, for example, employs some 388 full-time and 694 part-time employees, with an annual payroll of $20.9 million.

Only a handful of colleges are sprinkled across the Northern Rockies, but Lander and a few other Western towns are eagerly looking to increase the total. Some mountain communities hope higher education can help wean them from their dependence on volatile or declining industries such as drilling, mining, logging and ranching. Many towns are trying to beef up college offerings and technical training to compete in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy, where "skills" could replace timber, livestock and minerals as the West's most marketable resource.

Among Western states, Idaho and Wyoming are both playing catch-up on the college front. Wyoming currently has only one four-year college. Lander's new Wyoming Catholic College will double that number when it starts classes this fall. The new school, which will open with 32 students, plans to grow to 400.

Idaho and Montana have 10 four-year colleges each, while other Rocky Mountain states have doubled that number or more. Add two-year schools to the equation, and Idaho's standing slumps. Despite its far-flung geography, the state has only two community colleges, and southern Idaho's Treasure Valley is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation without a state community college.

Such a dearth of educational opportunity "substantially weakens" the state's economy, according to "Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education," a study by a California-based nonprofit that found that only 25 percent of Idaho residents hold bachelor's degrees.

That's disconcerting at a time when jobs requiring education and training beyond a high school diploma are growing. Despite studies and calls for action dating back more than two decades, Idaho lawmakers have been slow to respond. But a legislative committee recently suggested changing state law to encourage community colleges and technical education.

Meanwhile, private-sector Idahoans are pressing forward on their own.

Treasure Valley business leaders have launched a petition drive to put the creation of a community college district on the ballot this spring, despite the tax increase it would bring. In a parallel effort, Boise State University is seeking $71 million from a private family foundation to start a Treasure Valley community college.

"Education really is one of the fuels that runs the business engine," says Mark Dunham, vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. Indeed, the first question Dunham fields from companies considering relocating to Idaho is whether a university or community college sits nearby.

"The answer in Idaho right now is, 'Well, maybe,'" says Dunham.

Idaho's Silver Valley depended on silver mining until prices plummeted in the 1980s. Now, prices are rebounding and mines reopening, but towns such as Kellogg, Idaho, no longer want to stake their economic futures on a single industry. Instead, Kellogg's civic leaders abandoned City Hall, renovated the building and offered it rent-free to North Idaho College to start classes there two years ago, says Kent Propst, North Idaho College's vice president for community relations.

In northern Idaho, a Sandpoint businessman is taking matters into his own hands. Dennis Pence, founder, chairman and CEO of Coldwater Creek, a booming clothing and catalog business, is offering to build a college for the community. Pence's nonprofit Wild Rose Foundation plans to buy 77 acres of University of Idaho land for $6.25 million and then spend more than $20 million building a campus.

The deal reflects the region's changing needs, according to Larry Branen, UI's northern associate vice president. Historically, the university used the land for agricultural research. Today, researchers are focusing on smaller nursery crops, so the school doesn't need such a large footprint. The Wild Rose Foundation will donate 15 acres for the university to relocate its horticultural work.

In Lander, citizens already know how a school can help an ailing economy. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which teaches leadership skills through wilderness expeditions, set up shop there in 1965. But it wasn't until 1982, when a steel plant closed and put 500 people out of work, that the townsfolk fully embraced the school. NOLS kept Lander afloat by continuing to attract young adults to the community to work and raise families, Kellogg says.

Today, NOLS is one reason the new Catholic college chose Lander. College leaders plan to capitalize on the West's natural amenities by using the outdoors as a classroom. The college has hired NOLS to create and lead a three-week expedition into the Wind River Mountains for freshman orientation.

The Rocky Mountain West could position itself as "a higher education magnet" by capitalizing on the same scenic and recreational qualities now driving population migration to the region, says Daniel Kemmis, a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "There's no reason that the West could not compete so much more effectively for college students if we were committed as a region to steadily improving our higher education," he says.

In Lander, the real clincher for securing the new college was the well-timed generosity of a landowner, who donated a portion of a ranch 15 miles south of town to the college for its campus. Valued at $2 million, the gift sealed the deal. The college used the $300,000 raised by townspeople to hire an architect to design the campus.

Peter Kwasniewski, assistant academic dean and associate professor of theology, believes Lander's enthusiasm transcends economics. "The fact that a college wanted to come here was a kind of collective boost for the town's self-image," he says.

This article originally appeared in High Country News (

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