You are here

Future Shock

The Last Higher Education Frontier

Making mountain college towns from energy reinvestment
University Business, April 2013

Some of us east-coasters are urban-centric when it comes to identifying with the last American higher learning frontier—rising out of the Rocky Mountains and continental college town divide. Indeed, new interest in eco-tourism, adventure tourism, and extreme sports is creating a different kind of gold rush—expeditions to places of big sky, wild rivers, lakes, and peaks formed by glaciers thousands of years ago.

Nestled on the bucolic shores of Whitefish Lake, Mont., the city of Whitefish long ago captured the attention and engagement of family recreation, sports hospitality and cultural enrichment— now a national story in print and electronic news media. In fact, Whitefish, Montana is enjoying international celebrity status as the filming site for the “Bachelor,”, Kia TV advertisements, and home to sports legends like Phil Jackson, Drew Bledsoe, and Olympic racer Tommy Moe. Endowed with the heritage of the Great Northern Railway, Whitefish has served as America’s inland port for floating logs down the Flathead River, while railroad crews laid tracks in the Rockies.

No surprise that a growing cohort of rural communities is creating contemporary college towns, and in the process, optimizing workforce development, and diversifying educational and cultural opportunities. These place-bound communities are partnering with town-gown municipal agencies, Chambers of Commerce, economic development commissions, and other mission complementary civic organizations to create mountain college towns—great places to visit, live, learn, raise families, and build businesses.

Whitefish went about polling the community and, with the help of the experiences of collegetown experts, discovering advocates and real champions for the creation of new higher-learning opportunities in Northwestern Montana. Whitefish college town developers Don DuBeau and Sam Baldridge of River Opportunity Project Enterprise (ROPE) are now busy assessing the feasibility of reinventing the former hospital site on the Whitefish River, a venue ready-made for a university center. In this new knowledge-based, creative economy, DuBeau and Baldridge are putting their real estate and energy assets into building a new higher learning campus, serving contemporary student populations, while celebrating the proud heritage of the Northwestern Montana frontiersman.

What also makes the Whitefish Collegetown Project somewhat different is the confluence of educational, cultural, philanthropic, business, and civic leadership committed to a unifying coherent vision, establishing a shared university center vision that will address unmet higher education needs not otherwise provided in the Flathead Valley region. This win-win, mutual growth partnering strategy is designed to attract baccalaureate-level college and university faculty, staff and students—the DNA of the emergent Whitefish creative economy.

The design of next-generation mountain college towns like Whitefish will be driven by pools of smart collar workers—key attractors of real estate, energy, health and ecotourism investment. Typically, these smart growth commercial businesses target human capital recruitment in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Uniquely, the business development blueprints for these upscale, country-chic, creative college towns are heating up workforce demand—transforming STEM into STEAM—read as, no longer just science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, now adding the A for arts, because the fine, visual, and performing arts play an increasingly important part in fueling innovation and ingenuity by fusing the arts and sciences.

Across the landscape of red and blue states alike, the mountain and rural college town trendlines find several other exemplary town-gown relationships. In the Adirondack Mountains, the STEAM engine of the creative economy has sparked the exploration, engagement, and participation of the village of Saranac Lake, New York. This North Country college town builds on the proud foundation laid by one of the most famous medical innovators of the 19th century, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. Today, Saranac Lake and North Country education, civic, and business leaders are strengthening partnerships in the healing arts, rehabilitation, wellness, and fitness.

With the expansion of rail transportation and diversification of its creative economy, Elko, Nevada in partnership with Great Basin College transformed itself into a national, best practice mountain college town model.

Or, consider the edge of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, where the municipality of Mesa has partnered with Benedictine University (Ill.) to launch a satellite campus—and in the process gave birth to a fast-growing community of higher learning rooted in the natural artistic expression of the Mesa community.

By providing a special connection between young entrepreneurs, artisans, and civic education leaders, these next-gen college towns are courting serious venture capital and co-development university partners—the kind of institutions which will play a game-changing role in optimizing the creative economy of the last frontier of higher learning.