Editor’s note: This column is part of the CDT’s Business Matters special section.
In May 2015, before an audience of more than 300 business leaders, regional economic development partners, state and local officials and Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development representatives, Penn State and the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County signed a formal memorandum of agreement to work collaboratively on economic development.
As the largest employer in Centre County, Penn State has always been a source of economic strength in the region. With the arrival of President Eric Barron and the advent of Invent Penn State — the university’s statewide initiative to promote opportunities for partnerships and startups that will create jobs and help students and communities prosper — the university set a course to also be a driver of economic growth.
This focus was welcomed by the CBICC and its Centre County Economic Development Partnership stakeholders, both of which recognize that much can be accomplished for the long-term betterment of the county and the region by a strong relationship between the business and academic communities. For this reason, the CBICC had initiated dialogue with two previous university presidents in order to formally cement such a town and gown relationship.
Since the memorandum signing by Barron, the university and the CBICC (as the “community” representative) have been working behind the scenes to execute specific goals contained in the agreement. These goals will ensure that the partnership can serve as an important catalyst for business investment and job creation moving forward.
A recent success story was the announcement in July by Penn State, CBICC and officials from Morgan Advanced Materials about a Carbon Science Center of Excellence location in Centre County. A multimillion dollar investment aimed at creating a world-class research facility and create a range of highly skilled research jobs over the next few years. The agreement is the first global industrial partnership formed through Invent Penn State. Under the CCEDP banner, the CBICC represented the collective community throughout the dialogue between Penn State and Morgan Advanced Materials, working closely with local elected officials and partners as well.
The Center of Excellence is a tremendous opportunity that can serve as a building block for future business investment opportunities. In fact, Morgan officials are collaborating with CBICC to recruit additional companies to join them at its Innovation Park facility. This would result in additional job opportunities in the region.
The Morgan announcement highlights the benefits of the collective community partnership with Penn State that was envisioned in the memorandum.
The agreement itself is piquing the interest of economic development officials at the state and national levels.
CBICC President and CEO Vern Squier said the reaction the CBICC has received from site selectors, consultants and economic development officials is that the MOA is remarkably innovative because of its uniqueness; it is starkly different than what they’ve seen in other university communities.
“The traditional view is that a university merely provides for the community economically,” Squier said. “The MOA changed the dialogue to one of a true partnership relationship, and one in which the university, working with the collective community, also becomes a driver of the economy.”
Additionally, there has been growing interest from other university communities. CBICC and Penn State representatives recently presented at the University Economic Development Alliance conference in Roanoke, VA, and the MOA was featured in a presentation by the International Town and Gown Association at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives annual conference last August in Georgia.
As a formal, living document, the MOA sets the stage for economic opportunities stemming from business recruitment, retention, commercialization of university research and entrepreneurial development, and exemplifies what is possible in a town and gown relationship.
Lesley Kistner is vice president of communications /marketing for the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County.