Laurier driving growth Susan Gamble
Local News - Saturday, September 02, 2006 @ 01:00 Eight years ago, 39 students were rattling around in a newly created university that had little more than high hopes and great expectations. But what started so small and so slowly has burgeoned into an innovative, booming movement thats almost totally responsible for driving downtown redevelopment. And the flood of student residences, faculty buildings, classrooms, food services and resources isnt slowing, say those involved. Were in a situation where we can grow to the extent that we have buildings, says Lauriers principal, Leo Groarke. Although its still in the planning stages, this week Laurier president Bob Rosehart released the conceptual drawings of the universitys next dream project -- a massive five-storey creation to be built on Dalhousie Street, just across from the call centre in the downtown mall. The tentatively named Academic Building will have more residence beds, teaching space, a library area and a food vendor. *** First it was Laurier, then Nipissing University and then Mohawk College throwing their mortarboards into the core. Today, with close to 1,800 students flooding into the downtown for classes, the impetus of the schools is the main factor behind all downtown development, says Mayor Mike Hancock. Although plans for Laurier and Mohawk to renovate the old PUC building fell through earlier this year, that building is being eyed very seriously by Nipissing University. I can hardly wait to see a Nipissing sign on that building, says the mayor. But, he hastily adds, whats happening is about more than just buildings. This is a commitment to the city, Hancock says. The buildings are great because they keep the character of the community, but its the life thats energized here and the momentum were feeling. Its changed how we view ourselves as a city. The growth has spurred on private development, private student residences, restaurants and services. And theres no signs of that growth spurt abating. In fact, says the mayor, with the civic square work, theres been a renewed interest in the dilapidated south side of Colborne Street. With Nipissing looking to expand, the possibilities are endless. *** The numbers substantiate that optimism.
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From 39 full-time students in 1999, Laurier has leapt forward with 103 students in 2000; 200 in 2001; 295 in 2002; 632 in 2003; 922 in 2004 and 1,263 in 2005. This fall, there are 1,653 students enrolled, plus about 100 part-timers. Nipissing started with 30 students in 2002 enrolled in a concurrent program with Laurier -- so theyre counted in the Laurier total -- and thats jumped to 565 students this fall, plus an additional class of 35 area students that is an overflow from the enrolment in North Bay. Add in Mohawk students who have traditionally stayed in the east end of the city and have been coming into the core for classes at the Odeon building for the last few years. This year there are about 25 Mohawk kids in the core. This weekend marks the beginning of a mass influx of students as they return to the downtown. Laurier and Nipissing first years are assured of a residence bed, providing a more protected environment, says principal Groarke. First year is a transition year and we provide a more structured environment with dons and people watching over the students who might face issues of alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex. After that year, theyre expected to go and find accommodations elsewhere in private residences. To accommodate those second, third and fourth year students, private residences have cropped up all through the downtown -- from the 30-bed Rizzo Building on Colborne Street to a multitude of three and four bedroom houses converted for student use. Many are listed on a North American website called www.places4students.com. Some landlords, like Harold Mannen, have found creating small student residences to be a perfect sideline. I have 39 beds in the area but not all are targeted at students, says Mannen, who started the projects because of Laurier. I really love it and the kids are great. Ive had no trouble whatsoever. Mannen is also a downtown businessman, owner of the John Peel Restaurant. Theres now a vitality about the downtown that wasnt there before. Look at all the new buildings. Theres renewal happening all over and its not because of the casino. Every bit of it is due to Laurier. *** Growth doesnt always come evenly in the downtown. Groarke describes the process in terms of steps where, for a while, the schools are short of beds and classrooms, then theres a building boom and, for a while, there are too many beds and classrooms. When we started, the issue was trying to attract students. Very quickly that turned to having a problem finding buildings to fit the students. Despite the new Wilkes House and Faculty House that are just online, Laurier is back at capacity again. New housing at Lucy Marco Place (the old Y building) and the new East civic square building are welcome, but theyve come online a bit late for this year, Groarke says. Residence beds, classroom space and faculty offices have to keep apace of each other. Nipissing is also bursting at the seams, says Sandra Reid, the director of the Brantford campus. In a perfect world wed have five more offices in our building, at least three more classrooms, a gym and some large group instruction rooms. The cramped quarters mean the school is constantly problem-solving and partnering. For example, it uses the Brant Community Church when bringing large groups of students together. Aside from about 580 students who are also counted as Laurier students, Nipissing has a new class of 35 area students who are an overflow class from the North Bay campus after that location was swamped with acceptances. As well, Nipissing does a huge business in Additional Qualification courses or professional development for teachers. During the summer, for instance, 150 teachers from around southern Ontario were in the downtown upgrading their skills in Nipissing courses. Offering the concurrent courses for Laurier students to get a bachelor of education was a winning idea. With just 30 students in the program in the fall of 2002, Nipissing is growing at a dizzying pace and a switch to a five-year program for the B.Ed means automatic growth. Well have 700 students here next year and were developing whatever new courses the area school boards tell us they need for additional qualifications, says Reid. *** Laurier didnt want to own any Brantford buildings when it came to town. Now, it owns seven facilities and is planning the eighth. Part of the campuss huge success, says Groarke, is being creative in both programs and solutions. We havent duplicated Waterloo here. If youre willing to be inventive and creative and look for programs that are a little bit outside the box, you can keep attracting students. Groarke said some programs, like criminology, have been highly successful while others, like the education program done with Nipissing, hit the jackpot. President Rosehart predicts the school will soon move into the 2,500-student range which will make it more of its own entity, rather than a satellite campus. *** Theres plenty of talk about how much money the city has contributed to Lauriers growth. Rosehart calculates Brantford has corporately invested between $10 million and $12 million, but he is quick to point out that that amount is almost the same as Lauriers investment so far. The citizens of Brantford have invested privately, as well, contributing between $3 million and $4 million in donations and scholarships. Nipissing paid for the total renovation of its Market Street building -- about $1.4 million -- and expects to be sinking more into the area. Everyone is hoping the provincial government will eventually pony up some capital funds for new buildings. But in the meantime, the schools point out they and the students are making a giant contribution to the Brantford economy. A study released last year by Adventus Research in Guelph showed that construction and renovation costs are bringing millions into the downtown and the economic impact of the students, teachers and programs is between $39 million and $49 million each year. Spin off effects include restaurants, the retail food industry, housing units, retail clothing and transportation. People who dont frequent the downtown can barely believe the changes happening -- including having to make a lunch reservation at some eateries if you want a seat. Other cities are beginning to study Brantfords success in order to recreate it for their own downtowns. Theres even, says Mayor Hancock, renewed interest in the south side of Colborne Street -- the remaining dregs of the once worst downtown in Canada. Come back in 100 years and see our growth.