“We have been part of the landscape for more than a century, so it is easy to forget what an impact we have on the community. It is important to take stock once in a while,” said NIU President John G. Peters, speaking at a Tuesday meeting of the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation where he released a report titled “NIU and Our Region’s Prosperity.“
A supplement to that report, “NIU and DeKalb County’s Prosperity,” focused specific on the university’s impact within DeKalb County.
The report, completed by NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, looked primarily at financial issues, but also pointed out a variety of services provided by the university that enhance its value to the region it serves.
“Our students and our graduates will always be our greatest contribution to our region, but we also provide expertise, facilities and activities that contribute to that vitality, financially and otherwise,” Peters said.
Those non-monetary contributions include the consulting expertise of faculty (and students), a broad range of scientific and industrial laboratories, health care facilities as well as cultural and athletic activities.
At the meeting, Peters pointed to a new and increasingly important contribution that NIU is making to the region: broadband technology.
“The university has been recognized as a leader in the design and construction of fiber optic networks, having earned more than $100 million in grants to develop networks across the state,”Peters said. “Now we are mobilizing to help businesses, schools and medical professionals utilize the power of that technology to cut costs, improve education and health care, and to spur innovation across the region.”
According to the report, NIU has a significant economic impact across northern Illinois, calculated at just under $700 million. Not surprising, that impact is especially strong in DeKalb County.
Based upon 2010 data, NIU:
- Had a payroll of more than 8,800 and created an additional 3,400 jobs throughout the region as a result of university operations and payroll;
- Created an additional 528 jobs through capital projects;
- Purchased $61.6 million in goods and services; and
- Saw students spend $98.7 million on housing, food and other goods and services in DeKalb County.
According to the report, nearly $80 million in wages and salary paid out by the university stayed within DeKalb County last year, and nearly $49 million in operating expenditures were paid out to local businesses.
“We are a powerful economic engine for the region – a fact that often gets lost in the rhetoric when the general assembly debates the value of public universities and the need to support their mission,” Peters said.
The report pointed out that the university also contributes to the financial well-being of the region through a variety of services, facilities and resources that assist business and industry.
The authors of the report pointed to the Experiential Learning Center in the NIU College of Business as a prime example of such services. That program provides teams of students who research real-world business problems for companies. Their list of clientele boasts Wal-Mart, Caterpillar and McDonald’s as well as smaller, local businesses ranging from nursing homes to a company that provides flying effects for live theater performances across the globe.
“The ELC gives some of our best and brightest students an opportunity to gain tremendous experience and act as a resource for business before they even graduate,” Peters said.
Also at the disposal of businesses are a variety of laboratories for testing and experimentation. The NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology alone has eight such labs, including facilities to assist with computer aided design and manufacturing, robotics, materials analysis, noise and vibration issues, micro manufacturing and more.
“In today’s knowledge-based economy, access to such facilities, where problems can get worked out and possibilities probed, it is an invaluable resource, and one that we would like to see used more,” Peters said.
Northern Illinois University enriches the region it serves by providing a wide variety of entertainment options, from Division I college athletics in 16 sports (including football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball and more) to world class music from groups such as the Avalon String Quartet, the university’s acclaimed Jazz Ensemble and its world renowned Steelband.
The university also boasts an outstanding theater department that stages shows large and small throughout the year.
NIU’s Convocation Center also has become an entertainment hot spot, playing host to everything from farm shows and children shows to dog shows, rappers and rockers. The facility has welcomed more than 1 million visitors since it opened its doors in 2002.
NIU also contributes to DeKalb County by providing affordable health care services to low income families through its Tri-County Community Health Center in Malta and its Community Cares Clinic (operated collaboratively with KishHealth System). Both facilities serve as training centers for students preparing for careers in health care.
True to its roots as a teachers college, NIU also is one of the largest educators of teachers in the state. In 2008-09 the NIU College of Education graduated 449 students, all of whom did practicums in Illinois school districts. One year after graduation, more than half of them were employed by Illinois public schools.
The university also is engaged with the larger region, spearheading projects such as the Center for P-20 Engagement (which provides solutions to educators across the region), the Regional Development Institute (which works with communities to promote economic, workforce and community growth) and the Broadband Development Group.
That last entity promises to become increasingly prominent in the months and years ahead.
The Broadband Development Group works with companies, hospitals, municipalities and others to obtain and exploit the power of broadband Internet connections. They have played a major role in the expansion of NIUNet, a 175-mile fiber optic ring that links all NIU campuses. That experience proved instrumental in helping the university secure a grant to build the Illinois Rural Health Net, a statewide network to link rural clinics with top-tier hospitals. That, in turn, helped NIU snare its largest grant ever – $68 million to build a fiber optic network across northwestern Illinois.
Locally, the Broadband Development Group helped launch the DeKalb Advancement of Technology Authority, a $12 million project to link every school, library and municipal building in DeKalb County to a fiber backbone.
In every instance, the networks built by NIU will save public entities hundreds of thousands of dollars on Internet and phone services annually while providing dramatically better service (Internet speeds at the average DeKalb County school will improve 1,000-fold.) It will also give towns a powerful economic development tool to attract businesses that depend on high-speed web access to conduct business across the country and around the globe.
“We have always connected the region, in a figurative sense, but our broadband initiatives will allow us to do so in a literal way,” Peters said. “It’s an area in which we have a unique investment and unique expertise, and we intend for it to become a center of excellence for the university.”
Of course, infrastructure is only as useful as you make it. So NIU is also in the process of pulling together a team of its top faculty, from disciplines across campus, to develop applications and programs that can be deployed across those networks to improve schools, enhance business, share the arts and improve engineering and other fields.
NIU is already demonstrating its ability to help others leverage the power of fiber. The university was selected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create a Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center (REC) to help doctors adopt the electronic health records that can be instantaneously shipped across broadband networks to avoid overlap of services, negative drug interactions and provide complete medical histories in an instance when seconds count.
“We are positioning ourselves to take a similar leading role when it comes to utilizing broadband to improve education, to increase business efficiency, to cut government costs. Broadband is an amazing tool, and we are working to not just bring it to the region, but to teach people how to exploit it to its fullest,” Peters said.