LAKE PLACID - The impact that colleges and universities have on North Country communities goes beyond dollars and cents.
That was the message from three higher education leaders who led a panel discussion on Wednesday called "Institutions of Higher Education as Economic Engines for the Community," part of the Adirondack Research Consortium's 19th annual Conference on the Adirondacks.
The two-day conference is being held at the High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid. The first day included presentations on forest products, the future of the Adirondack Park and a keynote address from Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council. The conference continues today with discussions on climate change, sustainable communities and land use in the Adirondacks.
Neil Murphy, left, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, discusses the local economic impact of colleges and universities during the 19th annual Conference on the Adirondacks Wednesday in Lake Placid. Paul Smith’s College President John Mills listens.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Paul Smith's College President John Mills began the discussion by presenting economic impact numbers compiled by the Council of Independent Colleges and Universities. Mills' institution, according to the council, generates an annual economic impact of $62 million.
What does that mean?
The annual budget for Paul Smith's is approximately $25 million, including a payroll of $8 million. The college's enrollment exceeds 1,000 students, which represents a growth of more than 25 percent in the last 10 years. It also employs more than 200 people.
Mills said the council's report uses a methodology that includes the college's annual operating revenue and construction expenditures. He said it also considers the money spent locally by students and employees.
The college has spent $52 million on construction at the Paul Smith's campus in the last 10 years. Mills said the college employed people from the North Country area to do that work, and it purchased most of the materials locally.
"Of that 50-plus-million-dollars, $47 million was gifted, which means it came from outside the region, so it is new dollars into the community," he said. "I think that's a very important part of the story."
Mills said discretionary spending by students also plays an important role in the local economy.
"We can say with our students that the spending in the region during the academic year that they're here is $1.5 million they're spending in the community - buying things and contributing to the economic health," he said.
But Mills stressed that Paul Smith's has other impacts that are hard to quantify.
One example is the college's takeover of the Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths. The facility was run by the state Adirondack Park Agency until it was closed in 2010 because of budget cuts. Paul Smith's College now operates the facility.
"There's other intangibles that we love to talk about, which I think have economic impact for community building," he said. "Our students do lots in the community. Last year our students served over 400 people at the Keene Thanksgiving event. We provide fuel wood to needy families. If you were recently at the Daffest (Saranac Lake's daffodil festival), we provided a baking demonstration. Again, that's helping the community build its spirit."
Mills noted that students at his college have also consulted with nonprofit organizations, providing feedback and analysis on projects like the Keene broadband project. Additionally, Mills said some 200 Paul Smith's graduates have opted to stay in the region as business owners; many others remain in the area for employment.
Neil Murphy, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said educating young people to enter into the North Country work force is one of the most important things colleges do in this region.
"I think encouraging entrepreneurial enterprise, as John said, (is) extremely important, because we have seen to date that small business has recently driven and will continue to drive our economy," he said. "I think the establishment of relationships with the business community is extremely important."
Clarkson University President Tony Collins said colleges and universities are often among the top employers in their communities. In New York, two of the top 10 employers statewide are universities: Cornell and University of Rochester.
"And by the way, none of us have the intent of picking up our campuses and moving them to China or India," Collins said. "We call ourselves anchor tenants. Because we're here, we are rooted deeply into our communities and we are direct, large economic engines within those communities."
Collins said colleges and universities can also provide some stability during economic downturns because many people will pursue another degree or attend graduate school when jobs are scarce.
Collins said there are some things higher education needs to do better. The big improvement that's needed, he said, is in developing curricula based on what the community needs, not what the college thinks is best. Collins said SUNY Plattsburgh has been a leader when it comes to looking at budding industry in its area - aviation technology, for example - and developing educational programs to prepare students for those fields.
Collins said colleges that feed into the Tri-Lakes area would be wise to develop curricula that matches up with Saranac Lake's potential biotech future.
Members of the audience asked the panel what local governments, businesses and nonprofit groups can do to support colleges and universities in the region. Murphy said improving the region's broadband infrastructure is critical, while Collins said supporting railroad as an efficient and economical form of transportation is important.