by Gary Nelson – Jul. 9, 2012 11:01 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
The idea was to take a sprawling desert suburb, better known for senior-living trailer parks than for schools, and retrofit it with the kinds of colleges that sprang up in America’s older regions, decades or even centuries ago.
It may have seemed audacious, even quixotic. Ivy, after all, doesn’t do well in the heat.
But after Monday’s announcement that Wilkes University of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is setting up shop in Mesa, the city’s downtown is on the verge of becoming, in effect, a college campus without parallel nationwide.
Wilkes is the fourth liberal-arts school to make such an announcement this year, an accomplishment that resulted from a combination of hard work, a changing educational environment and a city willing to wheel and deal with its unused downtown properties.
And although at the outset each school may have only a few dozen students when they open next fall, the schools estimate there could be at least 3,000 four-year college students, many of them residential, in downtown Mesa within five years.
Mayor Scott Smith began talking several years ago about Arizona’s lack of variety when it comes to higher education.
There are, of course, the three state universities and their various campuses. In Maricopa County, a thriving community-college system serves more than 200,000 students. And Arizona has any number of for-profit colleges and trade schools.
Mesa is home to Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, medical offerings at A.T. Still University, and Mesa Community College.
But for the kinds of intimate liberal-arts colleges that populate American cities and small towns from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains, Arizona is, well, a desert.
City on a mission
After taking office in 2008, Smith said repeatedly that Mesa’s lack of educational diversity was driving good students elsewhere and damaging its economy. The same thing went, he said, for Arizona as a whole.
He made it Mesa’s mission to change that.
The city took a focused approach, first conducting feasibility and marketing studies to determine whether Smith’s intuitions were right — whether there was, indeed, a vacuum that existing schools could fill.
Armed with favorable results, Mesa sent more than 1,000 letters to schools around the country, asking whether they would be interested in setting up shop in the city. The focus was on established universities, as opposed to online startups.
“We’re looking for institutions that have a legacy, which is more than a history,” Smith said. The focus was on “a legacy of excellence and providing quality, unique educational opportunities,” he said.
One of those queries landed last year on the desk of Tim Gilmour, then-president of Wilkes University. Gilmour passed it on to Michael Speziale, a university dean.
“When I read it, I called him back and I said, ‘Are you serious? Did you read this? Is this something you’re interested in?’ ” Speziale said. “Because I thought it would be a great opportunity.”
Wilkes already has numerous satellite operations in Pennsylvania and even a couple abroad, Speziale said. But this will be the 79-year-old school’s first foray into another state.
“When you look at the demographics for projections for higher-education enrollment across the country, you can see that there’s a projected significant increase in the Southwestern part of the United States, and there’s a projected decrease in the Northeastern part,” Speziale said.
“It just made a lot of sense for us to expand our horizons and follow the market.”
Barney Forsythe, president of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., said much the same thing when committing to a Mesa campus in April.
“This is the first time in our 160-year tradition that we have decided to establish a second campus,” Forsythe said. “We picked Mesa because of the enormous growth-opportunity potential here.”
Wilkes was the first college to contact Mesa after the letters went out, but the deal was delayed as the school underwent a change in leadership that led to Patrick Leahy becoming president last week.
Economic Development Director Bill Jabjiniak said Mesa has spoken with more than two dozen schools in all.
“I don’t think we’ve said no to anybody,” Jabjiniak said. “What we did was take a look at their business models and their plans and picked who had better strengths for what Mesa offers.”
Jaye O’Donnell, an economic-development official in Jabjiniak’s office, said the point is to lay the groundwork for Arizona’s economic future.
“We highlighted areas that we wanted to focus on in terms of workforce development,” O’Donnell said. “So, we were fairly specific about saying we wanted programs that would help feed the pipeline” for highly skilled workers across numerous disciplines.
O’Donnell said Mesa wanted schools that offer a broad liberal-arts education, which prepares not just tradespeople but leaders. “We know from employers that they want to hire people who can solve problems and manage projects and can work with a variety of individuals and who have a well-rounded background,” she said.
Still, it’s one thing to want all that and another to pull it together.
Mesa came to the table with an array of vacant, city-owned downtown buildings that will be renovated and rented to the schools as they get established.
A former social-services building at 225 E. Main St., which in a previous life was Mesa’s community hospital, will become home to Illinois-based Benedictine University. Two blocks to the west, the city is remodeling a former retail building to be Benedictine’s recruiting office.
Mesa’s former City Court building at 245 W. Second St. will become the Mesa Center for Higher Education. Initially, it will be home to Wilkes, Westminster College and the downtown campus of Albright College.
Mesa will spend about $14 million to renovate the three buildings.
Forsythe said the availability of the old court building was “critical” to the college’s expansion into Mesa.
Mesa plans to renovate the building by fall 2013, in time for all three schools to begin classes there. In the meantime, Albright will rent space in Mesa’s Fiesta District to launch classes here this fall, and Wilkes plans a “soft launch” of some graduate programs in a space yet to be determined.
In addition, Mesa will work out deals with all four schools to use the city library, the Mesa Arts Center, the Mesa Convention Center and perhaps municipal athletic fields. Thus, the city itself becomes an integral piece of the extended campus.
A large tract on the southwestern corner of Mesa and University drives, which the city acquired and cleared more than a decade ago for an ill-fated resort project, is in play as the future home of academic and residence buildings for the colleges.
“I think we have potential here to create a new model for how to create higher education nested in the community,” Forsythe said.
Playing together nicely
The schools have been coordinating their course offerings to avoid competition. They plan to share numerous services, such as security and student health care, to keep costs down.
That may mitigate the traditionally high costs of private-school tuition, although none of the schools believes it will be a problem to fill classrooms in Mesa.
Jabjiniak acknowledged that private schools will never compete with public universities on price.
“What they’re focused on is the group that’s getting away” to private colleges in other states, he said.
“We’re finding there are opportunities here for scholarships and other things,” Jabjiniak said. “But there are people here who can afford to pay a liberal-arts tuition.”
“The initiative will be marketed as a consortium,” Leahy said, adding, “I think it’s hard to understand how unique an opportunity this is.”
That word “unique” keeps popping up as city and school officials talk about the still-evolving plans.
Smith believes this is the first time an American city has seeded its downtown with college campuses retroactively.
“This is new,” Smith said. “We have the opportunity to do something unique here. We don’t know how that will play out. But we know that the opportunity is there.”
Smith dismisses the idea that Mesa was ever tilting at windmills when it went shopping for colleges.
“To me, this is the fulfillment not of a a dream but of what we believed we could accomplish,” he said. “You have to believe in that to begin with.”
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