It only takes a quick glance up College Hill from Main Street to see the close physical connection between Bloomsburg University and the Town of Bloomsburg. In the shadow of Carver Hall, business and government leaders see the university’s benefit every day.
Jim Nemeth pauses for a moment as he considers Bloomsburg University’s economic importance to its surroundings. As director of human resources for Autoneum North America, which manufactures car carpeting and floor systems, he easily ticks off how BU positively impacts the 700-plus employee plant in ways big and small.
It boils down, he says, to collaboration. He points to the company’s new computerized tracking system, being implemented with help from students and interns from BU’s logistics program. Or the required testing of materials, carried out on campus and at Autoneum’s Fifth Street plant, thanks to chemistry faculty and students. Or the safety and orientation videos instructional technology students have produced for employee training.
“It’s a little gem, that university,” Nemeth says. “I’ve been here seven and a half years and one of the things that struck me when I came to this area is that we have this fabulous resource sitting just down the street from us. We need to find ways to partner with it and take advantage of it from a business perspective.”
A force for economic stability
Nemeth and Autoneum are not alone when it comes to talking about BU’s vital role in the well-being of businesses and residents in Bloomsburg, Columbia County and neighboring Montour County. Business and community leaders talk about the direct benefit of having the university in their midst, as well as the intangibles: providing a cultural and educational environment to keep talent from leaving the area and to serve as a recruiting tool for out-of-area workers.
Intangibles aside, the direct benefit of BU is considerable. Boasting about 1,000 full- and part-time faculty and staff, the university is Columbia County’s biggest employer, with a $110.5 million payroll — much of that spent locally on housing, groceries and other services. BU itself last fiscal year spent $58.2 million on facilities, professional services and supplies, according to a recent economic impact study conducted by the university.
“The university really contributes to the region’s economic stability,” says Fred Gaffney ’96, president of the Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce. “That influence is apparent, especially during turbulent times like we experienced with the recent recession.”
Gaffney says all anyone has to do to see BU’s value is look at other rural towns outside the university’s sphere. “Look at some of the surrounding communities that have an industrial heritage, as Bloomsburg does, but don’t have the asset of a significant university presence. Those communities have struggled to diversify their employment base,” he says. “So the university not only continues to be a recruiting tool and asset for businesses, it helps the community from a diversity and cultural standpoint and allows Bloomsburg to be more stable than other communities.”
A critical resource for businesses
Gaffney says the value of university students and staff to area businesses cannot be overstated. Besides benefiting from a continuous crop of talented student interns who can then become valuable employees, many businesses profit from university service projects and other opportunities.
One example is BU’s Center for Community Research and Consulting, which opened in 2012. The center helps businesses with marketing initiatives and tackles projects such as a parking study for downtown Bloomsburg and economic impact studies of the Bloomsburg Fair, the Covered Bridges Festival at Knoebels Amusement Resort, Danville’s Spring Fling and the Pennsylvania State Sportsmen’s Association Trap Shoot in Elysburg.
The university and the state partnered to create the Greater Susquehanna Keystone Innovative Zone in downtown Bloomsburg that provides tax credits and grants for new firms. Within the zone is the university-sponsored Bloomsburg Regional Technology Center in a former Elks lodge now owned by the Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Many of the businesses were started by graduates, who receive guidance from professors and are a source of internships and post-graduation jobs.
Assisting downtown entrepreneurs
Josh Bumgardner, co-owner of the Fog & Flame Craft Coffee and Espresso Bar in Bloomsburg, says the university’s presence — and its students — made his business possible. He and his business partner, Aaron Rush, also benefited from student assistance with the businesses’ website and social media presence.
“The students were able to apply their learning to a real-world scenario in helping our business at no cost to us,” says Bumgardner, who earned an MBA from Bloomsburg in 2009. “As a small business owner, you don’t have time to work on marketing and other things because you have so much going on, so the students have been very helpful.”
Adrienne Mael ’08, manager for the nonprofit Downtown Bloomsburg Inc., says many businesses benefit from student interns who are able to put their classroom experience to good use.
“We’re working on getting interns to all of our Main Street businesses so they can help with marketing,” says Mael. “A lot of the business owners are experts in their field, but are not familiar with social marketing. It’s a great way for the students to meet the businesses’ needs and also get professional experiences they can put on their resumes.”
Safeguarding the community’s health
Without the university, it’s likely Bloomsburg wouldn’t have a hospital and enjoy the wealth of medical services residents have, says Lissa Bryan-Smith, chief administrative officer at Geisinger-Bloomsburg Hospital.
“If there were no university, I can’t imagine that Bloomsburg Hospital would have been here for Geisinger Health System to buy two years ago,” Bryan-Smith says. “The university is a huge economic factor for the community, adding to the population of the town and surrounding area and enabling the hospital to remain viable.”
BU has long had a close relationship with both the hospital and Geisinger Health System. Students and faculty from the audiology and speech language pathology program provide hearing tests for newborns at the hospital. BU faculty and staff help with issues ranging from stuttering and swallowing disorders to speaking with the aid of specialized devices. The hospital works with the on-campus Audiology Hearing Clinic.
Additionally, BU and Geisinger have collaborated to expand the university’s undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, with students receiving clinical experiences at the local hospital and at Geisinger’s main Danville campus, about 20 minutes away. Geisinger put an urgent care facility in the hospital to augment health services offered on campus.
“The university provides the perfect community for a hospital where we can do the kind of programs we want to do,” Bryan-Smith says. “We are involved in midwife programs. Geisinger is also very connected to the sports medicine community and works all summer long with the sports camps run by the university.”
Bryan-Smith says many people who work at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville live in Bloomsburg. “It’s a great recruiting tool. Other rural areas don’t have the programs the university brings in, the arts festivals and the lectures that are open to the public. Even if they never go, people like knowing they’re available … just the fact that they could go to a musical or hear an orchestra or see a ballet group,” she says. “A lot of people like to go to sports and Saturday football is a very big deal here in the community.”
Bringing ‘so much more to the table’
“I break it up into three parts,” says David “Otto” Kurecian ’82, executive director of the Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau. “You have the sheer number of employees earning family-sustaining wages that are probably higher than the vast majority of people in this region.
“Another part is the students themselves and the economic impact they have on the region, especially in housing. Lastly, you have the more traditional benefits associated with tourism dollars from visitors drawn by the university.”
For Lance Diehl, president and CEO of First Columbia Bank, it’s not hard to see how the university’s presence translates into residential and business investment. Diehl estimates that 25 percent of the bank’s commercial and residential loan business is either directly or indirectly supported by the university’s presence.
“There’s no question that the presence of the university helps us attract new businesses to the area, that’s a given,” says Diehl ’88, whose wife, the former Aimee Soberick, graduated from BU in 1997. “The university presence also helps us retain a lot of the young people who otherwise would not stay in our area.”
First Columbia exemplifies how the university prepares employees for area businesses. In addition to hiring three or four student interns yearly, the bank employs 18 BU grads or current students. An additional 24 have completed coursework at the university and family members of 54 employees have benefited from the university’s educational opportunities.
“You go to Bloomsburg during the summer break and look at all the work being done by contractors on student rentals,” Young says. “It’s absolutely astounding. From electricians to painters to carpet layers, everybody is working six to eight weeks and going full-bore. So you can see a tremendous economic value with the housing.”
Just as important, Young says, is that the university and town worked together to strengthen building codes, helping to raise the quality of student housing and set the stage for better construction practices. “Developers are building nice housing now and everyone else has to keep up,” he says. “You see a big difference.”
Young believes the university also buffers the area from economic booms and busts. “Because Bloomsburg University is a main part of Columbia County, we stay steady. Kids are still going to college and the university is continuing to employ the same number of people. If BU grows, it will draw more people. And because of Bloomsburg University, you have industries that want to locate here.”
Young, who is familiar with the economic impact study done by the university, says the findings just scratch the surface. “I’ve said that if you need an economic impact study to understand the importance of Bloomsburg University to Columbia County then you will never understand its importance,” Young says. “The university brings so much more to the table and so much value to the area.” •
Jack Sherzer is a professional writer and principal partner with Message Prose, a communications and public relations firm in Harrisburg.