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State university system pumps dollars into communities: from Ketchikan to Fairbanks, the impact of the university to its host towns and cities is reported as considerable, both in cultural impact and finances.

The business of higher education is big business for many Alaska communities, with the local University of Alaska campus providing a relatively stable influx of cash to the local economy. It's a stability that often-times runs a complementary counter to the boom-style economies of typical Alaska industries like fisheries, timber and construction.

From Ketchikan to Fairbanks, the impact of the university to its host towns and cities is reported as considerable, both in cultural impact and finances. In fact, the university's contribution is a regular topic of scrutiny within the state, prompting comprehensive analysis like that summarized in the McDowell Group Inc.'s "The Economic Impact of the University of Alaska, 2003 Update" and the 2004 report "The Economics of the University of Alaska and the U-Med District" by

Scott Goldsmith of the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research. Some of the best testimonials of campus contribution come from the mouths of local residents and staff

Off-Campus Housing

The real estate market--particularly rental housing--is one gauge of how a local university campus impacts the surrounding community.

In Sitka, where all housing is off-campus and fall enrollment totaled some 700, students either live at home or rent apartments or houses within the community. This impact to the local housing and rental market provides an even, school-year balance to the more kinetic fishing and tourist seasons. In addition to the students and those adjunct faculty who do not live in Sitka, the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus employs 52 local staff and faculty, with an annual approximate payroll of $4.2 million infused to the local economy. "Education, as a whole, is the third-largest employer in Sitka, with about 300 jobs in this field," says Bonnie Elsensohn, media specialist at the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus. "Generally, these jobs offer higher salaries than those in health and seafood processing, the next largest employers."

Across the state in Fairbanks, some 7,113 students were enrolled at University of Alaska Fairbanks during the fall 2004 period. Of those, only an approximate 19 percent lived on campus, which left some 5,800 students finding housing off-campus that year, according to Ian Olson, assistant director of UAF planning, analysis and institutional research. Not including benefits, Olson reports that salaries "roughly totaled $115 million in the Fairbanks area in fiscal year 2005. That is an estimate based on total salary expenses in FY05," he says. "Some of these salaries are paid to employees outside the Fairbanks area, but most of this figure is delivered to people within the Fairbanks metro area."

In the Capitol city, the Juneau campus of UAS currently hosts some 850 full-time students and 1,700 part-time students, according to Kevin Myers, director of UAS marketing and public relations. Some 2,200 students live in the surrounding Juneau community, he says. In payroll alone-and only counting benefit-eligible employees, not part-time personnel--the Juneau campus infused the local economy with some $18.2 million in payroll last year. "That does not count the more than 200 adjunct professors who get paid on a per-class basis," Myers says.

As in Sitka, the UAS Ketchikan campus does not offer on-campus housing, which meant that all of its 550-plus fall students sought housing within the neighborhoods of the First City. The Ketchikan campus employs some 80 faculty and staff, with an estimated local annual payroll of $1.6 million, according to Wendy Gierard of the UAS Ketchikan campus.

And at the institution's largest campus site, enrollment at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus totaled 13,548 this fall--a 7 percent jump from the same time last year, according to Megan Olson, assistant vice chancellor of University Relations at UAA. Given that on-campus housing constituted space enough for 1,000 students, the remaining 12,500 students found a home in the surrounding community.

Local Goods

But housing and payroll are only two measures of how higher learning translates to big dollars for a host town or city. For local merchants, the impact is more direct. The university is a primary customer that can provide the bread-and-butter when other local industries feel hard times.

"The University of Alaska as a whole purchased $52.9 million worth of goods and services in the Anchorage and MatSu areas in 2003, 42.5 percent of all purchases by UA. UAA's portion of that was $30.1 million," reports Olson, referencing the McDowell Group Inc. report "The Economic Impact of the University of Alaska, 2003 Update."

"Whenever possible, our campus buys locally," says Sitka's Elsensohn. "Almost all of our office supplies are purchased in town.... On 'big ticket items' we must, by law, advertise for bids and accept the lowest bidder. In recent years, we have been undergoing extensive remodeling of our campus building. The successful bidder in this case was local."

"Printing is a good example of a business garnered from the (university)," Myers suggests. "The printing of course catalogs, business cards, promotional materials, admission and financial aid forms, course schedules, graduation programs, posters, etc., averages more than $65,000 a year."

In Ketchikan, where the traditional economies of fishing, timber and government are being replaced with a more transient visitor industry, the university is a key cornerstone in the local business community. "We spend approximately $1.2 million (fiscal year 2006) on supplies locally throughout the year. Services from telephone and electricity to contracts for copy machines, office supplies and other non-durable goods are purchased locally," says Gierard. "The primary expense for out-of-town purchases is textbooks, which comes out of a separate fund."

Human Factor

On the cultural side, the university system provides to Alaska what some suggest is even of greater benefit than the dollars and cents and diplomas. The campus network ties together the scattered towns and cities of a very large and diverse state, creating a sense of cohesion within the state.

"The university plays a key role in virtually all aspects of the community," suggests Elsensohn, who cites a long list of university influences within the Sitka community.

"We work with local K-12 schools to provide needed technical education courses and career counseling services to high school students. In addition, the campus offers dual enrollment classes to high school students to give them a head start on their college studies. We provide meeting and conference space and share resources, such as technology. The campus is very active in the Sitka Education Consortium, a group dedicated to improving Sitka's educational services. The Sitka campus (also) contributes to valuable research and cultural projects, such as the Whale Research project and the Native Arts program. We help train cadets for the trooper academy and provide a place for troopers to practice with their squad cars. We also provide drivers education training for the local high schools. The campus actively participates in Sitka's Annual WhaleFest program, offering academic credit for some of the program's courses. UAS provides instructors and classroom space for both the Sitka Fine Arts Camp each summer and recently for the Arts Fest for talented high school students from all around Southeast."

In Ketchikan, many local residents look to the UAS campus to help them ride the wave of a changing economy and evolving industrial climate. UAS Ketchikan provides residents with technical training that is otherwise not available locally, according to Gierard.

This includes courses for maritime, construction, welding, asbestos abatement, hazardous materials handling (hazwoper), nursing, and other vocational and technical training. One primary training example is the ferry system. "The Alaska Marine Highway System has contracted with UAS Ketchikan to train its staff in marine safety. Each semester, UAS Ketchikan trains anywhere from 20 to 100 AMHS staff members in lifeboat safety, marine firefighting, basic safety training and other specialized maritime courses," says UAS Ketchikan Interim Campus Director Cathy LeCompte. In addition, the Ketchikan campus partners with Alaska Ship and Dry Dock, Ketchikan General Hospital, Ketchikan Indian Community and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District to provide the coursework necessary for each entity to meet its ongoing training needs.

In Juneau, the campus offers fuel to an already hot art and culture scene, as well as considerable civic contribution. "University employees, both faculty and staff, contribute thousands of dollars and volunteer hours to local charities on their own, through the university and through rotary clubs and other civic organizations," says Myers. "The university contributes to artistic organizations such as Juneau Jazz and Classics, Perseverance Theatre, Juneau Symphony, Opera to GO, and Native Alaskan cultural activates; in many instances making performances available to the community at no cost. The campus community also adds a considerable number of actors, writers, singers and musicians to that mix."

But these are relatively small towns. One might think the influence of a university campus in Anchorage would be less obvious. But, according to Olson, the university system complements the Anchorage urban corridor with an added degree of quality living. She cites benefits including "a higher standard of living with higher wages ... because we have an educated work force, a vibrant arts scene with a depth and breadth that would otherwise be impossible for a community this size to maintain, great sporting events, (and) research that improves the lives and well-being of our citizens."
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Author:Colby, Nicole A. Bonham
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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