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Report Will Grade CSUN's Impact on Economy


Town and gown enjoy a historically uneasy relationship. Having a university for a neighbor brings prestige and low-cost cultural events, not to mention a sizable payroll.

In exchange, neighbors must endure increased traffic, noisy sporting events and, in the case of a state university, the removal of hundreds of acres of land from the property tax rolls.

Assessing the symbiosis of that association has, until recently, been largely an academic question left to the cocktail party set.

Now, Cal State Northridge, one of the largest employers in the San Fernando Valley, has commissioned an economic impact study designed to measure the amount of green in those ivory towers.

Aiming to gauge the financial force of CSUN in the vast Valley region, the study, which got underway in August, will measure factors from payroll and student spending to the value of the school's services to the disabled.

The study is one of several such efforts undertaken in recent years, both in California and other states, designed to show that the impact of higher education on the surrounding communities is not just a matter of degrees.

"A lot of people think education is a drain to the local economy," said Robert A. Kleinhenz, assistant director of the Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies at Cal State Fullerton. He is conducting the CSUN study, patterned after a similar report he did in 1997 for Fullerton.

"There are various camps who will say, 'It's a university--so what?' "

The assignment of the university, according to Kleinhenz, is to turn that "so what" into a "so there," by showing that the school packs a significant economic punch.

The study, with its estimated cost of $25,000, comes as CSUN celebrates its 40th anniversary with a look back at past contributions to the community and a forward focus on lining up strategic partnerships to further its educational mission.

While acknowledging that the school's central mission will continue to be production of a highly educated work force, CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson said that, in some circles today, that's not enough.

"For all segments of society today, there is a higher requirement for accountability," Wilson said. "It's even more so for a public university. It really is a question of, 'What do we, as a society, get for our investment in your university?'

"Ten years ago, or 20 years ago, we would have said, 'We graduate 600 students a year,' and people would have said OK and gone away," Wilson added.

"Now the question is, 'Are you a socially responsible neighbor? Are you accessible to the community?' If we are to maintain the support of the community, we ought to be able to [answer] those kinds of questions. But it would have been a very different question 10 years ago."

By the numbers, CSUN ranks among the most powerful economic forces in the Valley region:

* CSUN ranks as the largest employer in Northridge, and one of the 10 largest in the Valley region, with 3,600 faculty and staff including full- and part-timers and employees of the school's nonprofit auxiliary organizations such as the University Corp., the outfit that oversees operation of the bookstore and several campus food service outlets.

* Total campus expenditures for the 1997-98 fiscal year are expected to be about $340 million, up 6% from the $320.6 million in the previous year.

* The total value of all purchases and contracts for 1997-98 was $46.34 million. About 11% of that--$5.14 million--was spent with firms listing ZIP Codes in the San Fernando Valley.

Those are impressive numbers for a financial enterprise of any stripe, let alone one in the much-maligned public sector.

The university is also moving forward with a partnership that is expected to benefit the school and the community for years to come. In September, state university trustees gave the final go-ahead for an $80-million biotech complex on the school's North Campus to be built by MiniMed, the Sylmar-based maker of insulin pumps.

The deal, just one of the strategic alliances Wilson hopes to forge within the high-tech and entertainment industries, could net CSUN $32.5 million in rent over the 42 years of the lease.

For scores of merchants, whose eateries and shops dot the avenues around campus, the big bonus to having a university nearby is access to a fairly captive audience: 27,653 bright young minds, eager to consume or flip burgers and buy groceries at the local market.

Much of the student population lives within a 25-mile radius of the campus, Wilson said. That translates into thousands of rent, shopping and dining dollars.

But Walter N. Prince--a member of the executive committee for the Northridge Business Improvement District that's been proposed for a two-mile stretch of Reseda Boulevard--would like to see the relationship between CSUN and its environs be all that it can be. And he doesn't think it's quite there yet.

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