|Volume 11, Issue 3, 2011||Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas|
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Communi-Versity: Economic Strategy Draws on the City and University at Prairie View
In February 2010, community leaders and university officials who were interested in the future of both the city of Prairie View, Texas, and Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ Houston Branch. Out of this first meeting arose “Communi-Versity,” a joint venture of the community and the university focused on creating an environment conducive to economic development.
The city of Prairie View is located near Houston in Waller County, one of the fastest-growing counties in Texas. The city’s history is linked to that of Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university founded in 1876. Today, PVAMU is the city’s major employer.
Communi-Versity is composed of key leadership from the city of Prairie View, PVAMU administration and faculty, consultants from the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), the Houston Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the Prairie View Small Business Development Council, commercial and residential real estate developers, regional financial institutions and others.
“As a concept and in practice, Communi-Versity has excellent potential to serve as a model that highlights the invaluable role universities play in community and economic development in both their local and regional spheres of influence,” said Prairie View Mayor Frank Jackson.
Communi-Versity quickly recognized a lack of retail, housing and entertainment in the immediate Prairie View area. With the university comprising the largest part of the population, it was clear that students, staff and faculty did not have close access to shopping, restaurants, quality single- and multifamily housing, and employment opportunities.
Information from leakage studies done by the city of Prairie View showed that spending for commodities, housing, clothing and entertainment was going outside the city boundaries. The findings support the notion that the community is capable of supporting a full array of businesses from hardware stores to bakeries.
Although there has been a recent increase in off-campus housing construction, according to Lauretta Byars, PVAMU’s vice president for student affairs and institutional relations, “We have a desperate need for more housing for students, faculty and staff. Our housing efforts have not kept up with the enrollment and the demand.”
Communi-Versity aims to address these issues by attracting economic development. “Both the city of Prairie View and Prairie View A&M have demonstrated great leadership and resolve in developing an economic strategy that is already making great things happen in Prairie View,” said Joan Quintana, TEEX Economic Development Program director. “We are excited for Prairie View and honored to be playing a role in shaping the city’s very bright future and the broader impact on our great state of Texas.”
TEEX has played a vital role in helping to understand the development plans already established by both the city and the university. TEEX was commissioned by the city to create a “Prairie View Economic Development Strategic Plan.” These plans have identified assets of this rural college community, including:
University enrollment now exceeds 8,000, including nearly 2,000 graduate students. According to the Office of Financial Aid at PVAMU, the average student spends more than $2,000 each year on personal expenses and travel. The student population has the potential to enhance the economy of Prairie View since students are the primary consumer base. Their direct economic impact on Waller County is estimated at $109 million per year.
From findings in the TEEX study, the city will develop a plan that focuses on a housing and retail development to capture the considerable tax base currently being lost to businesses outside the city. At present, students, staff and residents of Prairie View must travel outside the city limits for the majority of the amenities they seek.
Because the university is the city’s major employer, ongoing evaluation of the university’s economic opportunities is essential to the city’s long-term economic growth. TEEX conducted interviews with key administrators, including academic deans, department heads, faculty and researchers, to thoroughly analyze the educational and research opportunities within the university.
TEEX sought to uncover opportunities for business spin-offs from research activities, expansion of laboratories and research facilities, and/or technology and research focuses that can offer both the university and the city opportunities for growth and development.
One of Prairie View’s key economic drivers is identified as tourism and heritage preservation. This would include documenting and celebrating the history of Prairie View, opening a farmers market, establishing entertainment and recreational venues, building lodging and accommodations, and developing city parks.
At the university, archiving and preserving the history of Texas will become a major mission as the home to the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture. The institute was established to collect, preserve, study and make available for research records, documents, artifacts and other items relating to the history and culture of Texas, with emphasis on the contributions of African-Americans throughout the state. It encourages the collection and preservation of disappearing materials such as historic buildings, written documents, vernacular architecture, burial sites and oral histories.
Other PVAMU resources that may be used include the Prairie View Solar Observatory, one of the largest in the U.S. The observatory could become a destination for visitor education and research, along with other specialized physics and engineering laboratories on campus.
The Prairie View community is ideally positioned to address the need to attract and graduate larger numbers of minorities in the fields of science and engineering. Part of Communi-Versity’s vision is the creation of a PVAMU K–12 school for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Such a school could educate the children of PVAMU faculty and staff, as well as residents in the area. The rich resources from PVAMU’s colleges of Engineering and Education would be an invaluable asset, according to the TEEX plan.
In other areas, PVAMU’s College of Agriculture is actively working with the Office of Technology Commercialization of the Texas A&M University System on a number of licensing opportunities. These licenses represent major innovations for agriculture and food nutrition that could become opportunities as part of a research corridor. This has the potential for workforce development for students and local residents.
As the Prairie View workforce and PVAMU student population increase, the need for alternative modes of transportation will increase as well. According to the Office of Institutional Research at PVAMU, the commuting population of students, staff and residents is currently 1,100-plus per day. Prairie View representatives are conducting talks with the Gulf Coast Rail District about including a stop at Prairie View. The proposed rail system would run along U.S. 290 from Houston to Hempstead and, eventually, all the way to Austin.
As they move forward, Communi-Versity participants are enthusiastic about the collaboration’s impact on Prairie View. “As the university continues to grow, the city of Prairie View plays an important role in supporting that growth,” said Sheleah Reed, PVAMU’s executive director for communications. “The work of the Communi-Versity group allows all parties to discuss the best strategies for the community to enhance the quality of life, create jobs and stimulate the community’s economic growth.”
e-Perspectives, Volume 11, Issue 3, 2011