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Mesa’s Center for Higher Education a Big Hit

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By Eric Jay Toll for The Arizona Builder’s Exchange

The number of universities calling the East Valley home is going up again with Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Penn., signing on as the fourth college in downtown Mesa. Wilkes joins Westminster and Albright colleges in the new Mesa Center for Higher Education, 245 W. Second St. Benedictine University will have its own campus at 225 E. Main St.

More important, the four schools join A.T. Still University Medical School and ASU Polytechnic, Mesa Community College, Carrington College, Everest College and a branch campuses of the University of Phoenix. That’s a lot of potential for synergy. Economic development officials for the city say census data show the highest concentration of advanced degrees in Maricopa County live in the East Valley. With the number of higher education institutions – there’s definitely a market feeding the classrooms.

Creative Financing Means Future Projects

In a tough financial economy, coming up with the money to develop a higher education campus is no easy task. Mesa creatively used its enterprise fund to pay for economic development projects like the Center for Higher Education.  As reported in April, Mesa refinanced bond obligations and used the savings to put together a total of $72M in its enterprise fund account, which can go for economic development projects like this.  Normally, enterprise funds are used for revenue-generating projects, such utility improvements paid by user fees.

Over the years, Mesa has acquired a lot of real estate downtown. While it’s spending $14M on the education center, there’s future potential to accommodate growth and other colleges in the downtown core. The city owns an undeveloped parcel called “Site 17” on the southwest corner of Mesa and University drives. It also has land available adjoining the MacDonald St. and First Ave. intersection. Mayor Smith says is known as its “South Center campus” to be developed when needed.

Just south of the Mesa Center for the Performing Arts, the Parks and Recreation Department and other city facilities are currently in place. The city wants to see 200 S. Center St., the former site of Mesa High School, returned to its education roots.

Through acquisition or current ownership, other sites in the downtown area could be converted to serving higher education’s needs. The city is willing to renovate, demolish and rebuild as may be required to contribute to campus success in the Power Knowledge Corridor.

Higher Ed Major Player in Economic Development Strategy

Education is the second pillar in Mesa’s economic development HEAT strategy (health care, education, aerospace, technology) for its business recruitment efforts. Mesa, along with neighboring Gilbert, has positioned each other in very complementary niches. Gilbert’s focus is called “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

While it’s not an absolute, in general Mesa economic development looks at health care services, while Gilbert is focused on bio-life sciences. Mesa has industrial and technology business building products, Gilbert has the research and development.

At the heart of it all is the Power Knowledge corridor stretching from the four new downtown colleges to ASU Polytechnic at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport area. It may be among the most diverse collection of higher education opportunities in the West.

Mayor Scott Smith says the quest for another liberal arts college is on hold. “Our plate is full,” says Smith, “we need to let the four schools build some roots.” The city is considering a specialty school, such as another medical college. With Everest already located there and Mesa Community College improving an abandoned theater in the neighborhood, Smith hints that a fifth college may be looking in the Fiesta district for a campus.

The city is looking forward to more educational opportunities based in town. Initially, plans called for the education center to be shared with the police department. With three schools readying the campus for students in 2013, the mayor says other space for the police department will be found. There are hopes the schools will outgrow the building.

Higher Ed is Value-Added Proposition

The city sees added value from the four schools and their plans to collaborate and cooperate. The downtown could find itself in a unified campus where the schools utilize city facilities – such as the library, convention and performing arts centers – adding to private retail businesses getting the economic boost from all the additional traffic in the center of town.

“It would not surprise me to see 3,000 to 5,000 students in downtown Mesa in four or five years,” Smith says.

Another expected benefit is residential neighborhood renaissance. Faculty members at urban campuses across the country enjoy living in nearby historic neighborhoods. The downtown campuses are surrounded with such potential—many residential blocks are incorporated into designated historic districts.

Bringing the schools to town has been a shared effort involving the community college, Mesa schools, and the Chamber of Commerce. The colleges have committed to being part of the community and sharing in city economic development efforts. The city’s success attracting businesses means jobs for the schools’ graduates. This is an outcome not lost on any party in this program.

Original source: AZCentral

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