University towns offer riches that go beyond economics – Western Montana InBusiness

I have had the good fortune to live in three college towns, all places where town plus gown equals a community notable for its youthful energy, intellectual zest, and all-around fun and funkiness.

Thirty-five years ago this fall, I arrived in Boulder, Colo., a freshman at the University of Colorado. Boulder in 1972 was everything a college town should be: busy (very), eccentric (very, very), surprising (always), tolerant (usually) of 24,000 youngsters in its midst.

I watched, wide-eyed, dozens of student protests of dozens of causes. I joined my newfound dorm-mates in pilgrimages to all manner of businesses on "The Hill," and later to downtown Boulder. I spent hours with the course catalogue, unable to choose from the many offerings that intrigued me.

Women and the Law? Edgar Allen Poe? Geology of the Northern Rockies?

Seven years later, and three years into my journalism career, I moved to a decidedly smaller, but no less busy, eccentric or surprising college town: Missoula. The air was a bit chunky in the winter back then, but I had never imagined such an extraordinary combination of blue-collar grit, on-campus zaniness, intellectual flair and small-town charm.

I marveled at how everyone – town and gown – turned out for Grizzly basketball games, no matter the propensity for frostbite between your car and the basketball court. I joined other newsroom night-shift workers on a midnight bowling team with the night shift from the Bonner sawmill. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at noon, I sat in awe in the back row of the University Theatre as K. Ross Toole told the story of Montana to his history students.

And although Boulder and Missoula were altogether different in style, both schooled me in the impact a university has on the culture and character of its host-community and its economic vitality.

Never did I see that impact more clearly than during the four years I lived in Moscow, Idaho, in the mid-1980s. When the University of Idaho closed up shop for the summer, Moscow lost two-thirds of its population. Just across the state line in Pullman, Wash., the departure of Washington State University’s even-larger student body left a veritable ghost town each summer in the Palouse.

Hotels, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, bookstores, malls – all were empty during the summer months. Traffic? Not a stitch. Lines? Never. Cash registers? Silent.

As another academic year convenes in Missoula, we devoted this month’s edition of Western Montana InBusiness to the impact UM and its faculty, staff, students and programs have on Missoula’s economy.

It’s astounding really.

UM’s 14,000 students rent our movies and our houses. They buy our groceries and blue jeans. They’re our neighbors, family and friends. They energize our town’s economy, and our spirit.

The University of Montana also employs more than 2,400 people: coaches, professors, clerks, cooks, police, receptionists and research scientists.

The research alone attracts $60 million a year in funding to our town.

And what about the $120 million the university has collected via its Invest in Discovery fundraising campaign? And the $300,000 local businesses donate each year? And the $185 million UM faculty, students and staff spend annually for basic living expenses: food, housing, transportation, recreation.

All by itself, UM accounts for 11 percent of Missoula County’s economy, according to the campus-based Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Just listen to Larry Swanson, the economist-director of UM’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West: "University towns always stand out. … In a modern economy, the presence of a university is increasingly important."

And we all know from living here that the dollars and cents are only part of the equation.

Life in Missoula, Moscow and Boulder is ever-so different – richer, more challenging and most certainly more fun – because of our resident universities. Missoula without the crush of students downtown on a Saturday night? Without the contributions of UM’s lecturers, artists, musicians and actors? Without Monte?

It just wouldn’t be Missoula.

Reach editor Sherry Devlin at (406) 523-5250 or by e-mail at [email protected].

SHERRY DEVLIN Is editor of the Missoulian and Western Montana InBusiness Monthly.

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