A closer look at St. Paul higher education

ABy Randy Kelly As I traveled around the city of St. Paul throughout my campaign for mayor, I was reminded that St. Paul has the third-largest concentration of higher education institutions in the nation. And it soon became absolutely clear to me that our colleges and universities are a critical thread of our community – tremendous assets that would be difficult to duplicate. If we tried to create from scratch an industry that paid good wages, was practically recession-proof, was ecologically friendly and that contributed mightily to arts, culture, knowledge and tourism, we couldn’t even approximate the higher education treasure trove we already have in place.

Once in office, I set out to learn more about the positive aspects of having an extensive community of higher education institutions. I also wanted to reach out to our universities and colleges to begin discussing how we might be able to leverage our combined resources to further benefit both us and them.

I know our neighborhoods benefit from the quality-of-life amenities of the well-kept, beautiful buildings, recreational programs and the park-like settings of our campuses, as well as from the significant economic impact of the students and professors who spend money in our neighborhood shops and restaurants. But I wanted facts. So last year I asked the Capital City Partnership to study the economic impact of our places of higher learning. From the beginning of the study we insisted that it be about more than numbers; we wanted to lay out an action plan with concrete steps to improve the relationships between our campuses, the city and our business community.

One anticipated outcome of improved relationships is doing a better job of touting our higher education assets. I am committed to marketing St. Paul as a college town. We are a place where motivated people come to teach and learn and contribute, and we need to do much more to celebrate our campuses, our college students and their professors. In the coming weeks, the city and community partners will launch a public education campaign to share the results of the economic impact study and remind our citizens about the valuable built-in resources they have in our higher education institutions that share our neighborhoods.

But we’ve already begun to capitalize on some of these relationships that will yield valuable dividends in terms of jobs and economic development. Since last year, the city has been cultivating a partnership with the University of Minnesota to build a science corridor in the Midway/Highway 280 area. We believe it’s possible to create thousands of new jobs and expand our tax base, both capturing and adding value to the great discoveries coming out of the University in the fields of bioscience. This effort will also help the University attract and retain world-class faculty, students and staff, and provide close-by opportunities for entrepreneurship, research collaborations and internships.

Just last month we reached a milestone for this partnership when the St. Paul City Council unanimously agreed to purchase the land and building for the beachhead of this initiative – a biotechnology incubator and office park for start-up and medium-sized life sciences companies. We will be jointly developing this facility with University Enterprises Laboratory, a nonprofit organization created by the University, with the help of generous donations from Xcel Energy and other partners.

I intend for the biotechnology initiative to be just one of many examples of how our entire region can benefit by strengthening relationships and cooperating with our higher education institutions. We must realize that our higher education community remains the most powerful source of training opportunities and innovations that can help our business community and our local governments. In turn, the city is dedicated to improving our message to the region and nation – not forgetting local neighborhoods – about the benefits we receive from our college campuses.

Randy Kelly is the mayor of St. Paul.

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