Holden research study shows WSCU is key to positive, sustainable economic growth in Gunnison County

Supports sentiment that Gunnison should strive to be a university town with tourists, rather than a tourist town with a university.

By Toni Todd

It’s not news that Western State Colorado University has a positive impact on our local economy. But when that impact gets drilled down to dollars and cents, it’s clear Western offers more than students hanging out in bars and coffee shops.

In his recent study, “The Role and Impact of Western State Colorado University on the Economy of Gunnison County,” Paul Holden, Ph.D., economics professor at Western State Colorado University and director of the Enterprise Research Institute, has done that drilling, and the numbers are staggering.

“President Salsbury and the university cabinet wanted concrete evidence on Western’s economic impact on the county, an update on some estimates that were done seven years ago,” said Holden. “Western retained me to do the analysis since I am an economist with experience in doing this type of work in other parts of the world.”

The report measures Western’s direct and indirect economic impacts. Direct impact comes from money the university spends within the county, while indirect impact is the result of what Holden calls a “cascade of spending,” throughout the community. Combined, he estimates Western contributes $70 million to the local economy, roughly 20 percent of total income in the county, annually.

“I knew that Western was an important economic entity in the county. I was surprised, though, by just how large an impact it has,” Holden says.

A big part of Western’s impact comes in the form of jobs. Western creates more than 450 jobs directly, and generates an additional 190 jobs indirectly. Average wages, salaries and benefits at the university are twice the county average. Students make up a large percentage of the 18 to 25 age bracket in the county, and are part of a substantial employee pool for part-time, entry-level workers.

“The synergistic impact of Western’s highly educated employees and students has the potential to be a catalyst for sustainable, low-impact growth in Gunnison County,” says Holden.

Holden identifies numerous roles that Western plays in the local economy:

Purchaser: Western spends more than $5 million annually on local goods and services, making it one of the largest single purchasers in the county.

Employer: Including student-workers, Western employs about 8 percent of the local workforce. The average salary at Western is $70,800, making it the highest-paying employer in the county. While faculty are often recruited from outside the county, Western also employs many local workers. Nearly 400 students were on Western’s payroll during the 2015-2016 school year, adding student purchasing-power to the local economy.

Real estate developer: Western has substantial land holdings. “Over the past seven years, the university has undertaken a major program of building and development, which has included not only upgrading general facilities, but also providing quality residences for its students,” Holden writes. These projects employ many local contractors and workers.

Business accelerator: Holden notes Western’s support of ICELab, which helps to develop and grow small businesses in the community.

Western students make up 70 percent of Gunnison County residents age 18 to 25. Holden argues that in addition to spending power and employment, students inject youthful energy into the community. They also attract friends and family to the valley.

Holden says communities with the widest variety of goods and services prosper, while those based on a single economic driver, such as agriculture or tourism, fare poorly.

“Institutions like Western have a key role to play in providing the knowledge that can lead to a variety of complex products and services,” he says.

“Western is different from other large contributors to the economy because it’s not pro-cyclical,” Holden adds. “It’s not as dependent on the state of the national economy as tourism or construction, which are two other important economic activities in the county.”

In the course of his research, Holden interviewed business owners and government officials throughout Gunnison County to get their take on Western’s role in the community. Here are a few of the quotes collected from that effort:

“We do not need more tourists filling up our streets. We need the sustainable growth Western provides.”

“Tourists do not generate high-paying jobs. Western could.

“The communities of the Gunnison Valley take Western for granted.”

“City and county leaders should consider ways Western could be supported to ensure the sustainability of the entire community.”

“In the discussions of the future of Gunnison County, why is more attention not being given to attract students? All the focus is on bringing tourists here. Why are we not ensuring our policies serve the university?”

“Western is the key to sustainability in the county.”

Holden says Western has historically been underappreciated in the community, but he sees that changing. “There is some push to make Gunnison a university town, and the Gunnison Vibrancy Initiative is an excellent step towards helping Gunnison achieve its potential. Western is participating in that process,” he says. “I do think, however, that both Western and its faculty, as well as the city itself, could do more to integrate the university more deeply into the economic, artistic and intellectual life of the community.”

To read the full report, go to: https://www.western.edu/sites/default/files/Economic_Impact_Study_accessible.pdf.

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