The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is all grown up and headed into a new school year as one of the region’s emerging economic drivers.

The university, once a small commuter college, now packs a $310 million economic punch to the local economy and is growing.

This year, the university is building a $17.5 million student housing project and the $18.5 million Lane Center for Academic Health Sciences. Its professors are getting aggressive about technology transfer, where it partners with businesses and licenses its intellectual property; its business professors are working with entrepreneurs to spin off companies and technologies. And its physics and engineering professors are working closely with high-tech companies on research and development, all with the goal of getting patent approvals for commercialization of their research.

And that’s just the beginning, said Jerry Rutledge, who served on the CU Board of Regents from 1995 to 2007 and owns Rutledge’s Inc., a high-end men’s clothing store at 1 S. Tejon St.

In the next five years, UCCS wants to be on its way to building a branch medical campus in connection with the Anschutz Medical Campus; building a high-altitude track where research for top-performing athletes and disabled athletes can be conducted; and building a fine arts center, which would be accessible to the community, all on North Nevada Avenue.

“Quite frankly, we’re the 800-pound guerilla,” Rutledge said “We are it. We are legit now — we are a great force in Southern Colorado.”

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UCCS is part of the University of Colorado system, which includes the University of Colorado Boulder, The University of Colorado Denver and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. All told, CU is the third-largest employer in the state and has a $5.3 billion economic impact on the state’s economy.

“UCCS has been an important economic driver for our community and it’s not just because it’s an institution of higher education,” said Kyle Hybl, CU Board of Regents chairman and vice president and general counsel for the El Pomar Foundation. “But, it’s an institution of higher education that wants to be relevant to the community.”

That’s a philosophy that turns typical university growth on its head, he said. UCCS has not lost sight of its role in the region. And, its growth starts with the idea of services for the community and then what kind of research can grow from there.

“Going back to 1965, it’s part of its culture,” Hybl said. “It’s only relevant as a force in the business community because its culture chooses to be relevant to the business community.”

From the UCCS beginnings, faculty members have been keenly aware of its close ties to the business community. It was David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, back in 1965 that played a significant role in establishing UCCS. He wanted a university campus in the Springs where his employees, particularly engineers, could be trained.

“I have not created it,” said UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak. “I inherited it. The real DNA of the campus really is connected to the community.”

Since 2002, 17,500 have graduated from UCCS. That alone makes UCCS an important component of the region’s economic future, said Doug Quimby, chairman of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC and president of La Plata Communities.

“There are two benefits; one is training future employees for our employers through engineering, business and nursing and many other programs,” Quimby said. “Secondly, it can be an attractor of young professionals — a vibrant university is a factor in making a town interesting, exciting and fun.”

UCCS is growing up

UCCS is growing up to be an economic player in the region, Quimby said. But, it hasn’t always been that way.

“The university has undergone a metamorphosis in the last decade,” Quimby said. “10 years ago, you hardly knew it was here.”

A turning point came in 2000, Rutledge said. The CU Board of Regents designated UCCS as the growth campus and UCCS was allowed to grow up, he said.

“It was them acknowledging us,” Rutledge said. “In my heart, it was the greatest achievement.”

With that new designation, came the approval for more degree programs, he said, which attracted more students. Last fall, UCCS had a record enrollment of 9,300; and this fall, enrollment is expected to hit 10,000.

But, it was the night of the Nov. 1, 2005, election that was a turning point for Shockley-Zalabak. If the Colorado State Spending Act, Referendum C had failed, UCCS would have been in serious financial trouble, she said. The referendum allowed the state to spend the money it collected over its TABOR limit for five years on public education, among other things.

“I never again wanted us to be in such a dependent position on the outcome of one referendum,” she said.

State money was already dwindling. When Shockley-Zalabak took over as chancellor in 2002, the university received 54 cents on every dollar from the state to run the university. Today, it’s 8 cents.

For Shockley-Zalabak it meant getting more serious about raising private funds and creating public-private partnerships to grow the university.

Visualizing a new Nevada Avenue

In 2011, the John E. and Margaret L. Lane Foundation donated $4 million to build the health science center on North Nevada Avenue, at Austin Bluffs Parkway. Plans call for Peak Vista Community Health Centers, which operates 19 health centers in the region, to partner with UCCS and own a portion of the building.

“It wins educationally, it will win in terms of direct services to patients and it also has interesting educational support and research support — we are going to learn more about trauma health,” Shockley-Zalabak said.

Talking about the development of North Nevada Avenue is one of Shockley-Zalabak’s favorite pastimes. Not too long ago, the stretch of land, north of Austin Bluffs/Garden of the Gods Road was blighted. It was a serious concern for the growing student body. She worked closely with the City of Colorado Springs, which declared the area an urban renewal zone, which allowed developers to secure a $55 million bond to pay for infrastructure improvements.

“We, of course, don’t position ourselves as selecting who should be the businesses to go in on that side of the street,” Shockley-Zalabak said. “But the reality is we needed a more vibrant area if we are going to grow on this side of the street.”

In 2009, local developers Kevin Kratt and Tom Cone opened the 650,000-square-foot University Village Colorado. The upscale shopping center made the area safe, more attractive to prospective students and provided hundreds of jobs for students, Shockley-Zalabak said.

But, her vision doesn’t end there. In addition to the 54,000-square-foot Lane Academic Health Sciences Center, which will house Peak Vista, the CU Aging Center, the Gerontology Center, the Trauma Health And Hazards Center and clinics operated by the Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, there are plans for the CU School of Medicine. Voters approved this week a lease agreement between Memorial Health System and University of Colorado Health. Under the lease agreement, UCH will pay $3 million a year to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to create a branch medical campus in Colorado Springs.

“Talk about jobs,” Rutledge said.

Also on the drawing board is a high-altitude, handicapped-accessible, track for school athletics and for training and research to help people with physical limitations.

“It will be one of a kind in the world,” Shockley-Zalabak said.

In the next five years, she also wants to build a fine arts center to house the growing number of arts programs, which are now scattered throughout the campus. With a location right off Interstate-25, the fine arts center would be accessible to the community.

“CU Boulder is limited in how it can grow its facility,” Quimby said. “This is where the action is going to be — I think Chancellor Shockley is a huge factor. She has made this happen.”

Partnering with business community

UCCS is trying to innovate and be on the cutting edge, especially in developing new programs that fit the business community’s needs, said Venkat Reddy, dean of the College of Business and Administration and board member of the Chamber/EDC.

His focus is workforce development, he said. About 250 students from business programs are placed in the internships each year; and 65 percent of all UCCS graduates stay in Colorado with a high percentage staying in the Springs, he said.

“At the end of the day people are not going to come here because of Pikes Peak,” Reddy said. “They come here for access to a strong workforce . . . the university is central to economic development.”

Now, UCCS is turning its attention to research and development, partnering with startups and industry. These are things the university has always engaged in, Shockley-Zalabak said. But, until recently, there was no real space for professors to invent. Two years ago, UCCS opened a $54 million Osborne Center for Science and Engineering, named for benefactors Ed and Mary Osborne who donated $10 million toward the project.

It unleashed a whole new entrepreneurial spirit at the university. The developments could lead to the creation of high-tech companies, said Michael Larson, El Pomar chair of engineering and innovation and associate vice chancellor for research.

Last year, the CU technology transfer office worked to assist faculty with commercialization of university technology, mostly at CU Boulder. The tech-transfer office, which pursues, protects, packages and licenses the intellectual property generated from research, spun out 11 companies. Over the years, it has helped jumpstart 114 companies and has filed 253 patents.

UCCS wants in on that action, Larson said. In 2011, UCCS generated $10 million in research funding. Now, it wants to spin out companies, Larson said.

“Our research production has been increasing in recent years,” Larson said. “The number of faculty participating in sponsored programs has been increasing — things that bring in funding from outside the university in order to support the development of projects and research.”

Tech transfer, R&D and business creation are the developments that could put UCCS on the economic development map, Quimby said.

“It could be a huge game-changer for the university and for the community as a whole,” he said. “I believe the university is going to be a prime economic driver in Colorado Springs.”

UCCS Economic Engine

Contributes $310 million annually to local economy including:

  • Student spending, $46.8 million
  • Visitor spending, $1.6 million
  • Vendor spending, $7.9 million
  • Procurement purchases, $1.6 million

UCCS Profile

  • General Fund Budget, $158.3 million for 2011-2012
  • Faculty and staff, 1,700; $55.3 million in salaries; faculty generated $10 million in external research funding
  • Student enrollment 9,300 in 2011; expected to be 10,000 this fall.
  • UCCS offers 36 bachelor’s degrees, 19 masters and five doctoral

2011 Highlights

  • Broke ground on an $18.5 million Lane Center for Academic Health Science
  • Broke ground on a $17.5 million student housing project
  • Raised $7.6 million in private donations.

Source: University of Colorado Economic Impacts May 2012 report; and UCCS Office of Media Relations

  • Mark Ernster

    COS needs this…desperately. Building an academic hub in this city that bolsters entrepreneurship, sciences and healthcare is vital to our growth. The more active the University gets the more businesses will be attracted to the city.

  • Jan Horsfall

    What a great job Pam and her team have done moving UCCS into the future! Let’s keep it going and get them more closely tied to our other area entrepreneurs! Great job!