Another View: The time is now for a four-year university in Placer County

By: Jack Duran, District 1 supervisor
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As a county policy maker, issues like balancing the budget, keeping neighborhoods safe and aligning core public services with our community’s values and quality of life needs are undeniably high priorities. And on these issues, Placer County is, for the most part, doing far better than others in our state.

Building on this success will ultimately hinge on far bigger challenges – like job creation and economic development.

How do we create the best possible environment in which individuals and businesses can thrive? How can we leverage the many economic attributes of our community – ample natural resources, strong infrastructure, abundant housing, rich history and easy access to recreational opportunities – in a way that positions Placer County to lead California’s economic recovery?

We do it with a regional four-year university.

This is not a new idea. Over the last 20 years, many plans have come and gone. They’ve included a Saint Mary’s satellite campus, Drexel University, Place Ranch and, most recently, a strategic relationship between CSU Sacramento and the city of Roseville.

All who have taken the time to undertake these efforts to date – from the late Supervisor Bill Santucci to our current Roseville City Council – deserve credit for keeping this issue on the front burner. But we need to get beyond the idea of a university as something that’s always decades in the future.

The research tells us that the time for action is upon us. Demand for college has never been higher among California students, but budget cuts have left the UC, CSU and community college systems struggling to keep pace with demand. In-state enrollments have dropped dramatically, and far too many of our best and brightest are pursuing academic opportunities out of state. As a result, last year the Public Policy Institute of California projected that California will fall 1 million college graduates short of economic demand by 2025.

A regional university can help protect Placer County from this looming workforce shortage and create a long-term magnet capable of attracting new high-wage businesses to our community. Over the short term, it can catalyze job growth and a more robust economic recovery.

The initial planning and construction phases of such a facility – and the surrounding infrastructure it demands – could create hundreds (if not thousands) of local jobs. A secondary boom of vendors, supporting businesses and staff/faculty housing would follow – with everyone involved patronizing local businesses, recreational opportunities and other enterprises.

Regional and local developers are prepared to donate land for such an ambitious project. Material and financing costs are at or near their lowest levels in more than a generation.

So the question before us is not really whether to pursue a four-year university, but how do we avoid the pitfalls that have stalled this vision in the past?

We need to bring everyone to the table – the Board of Supervisors, representatives from every city in Placer County, business and labor leaders, neighborhood groups and educators – to build consensus behind a single vision. This is the foundation that will enable us to recruit and engage the partners that will be needed from outside the county to ultimately bring this concept to successful completion.

For Placer County, this kind of an approach is not without precedent. It’s made our correctional realignment and our local joint powers authorities among the best in the state. It’s the approach we are currently taking to the regional sewer project. And it is an approach that ultimately lies at the foundation of the Placer County Conservation Plan.

For me, this project isn’t just about smart policy and a stronger economy. It’s personal.

My 20-year journey from truck driver to attorney, small businessman and county supervisor was made possible by the chance to attend college near home. The fact is that years of state budget uncertainty have left many Placer County residents – and too many Californians, for that matter - unable to realize similar ambitions. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

A regional university project can help to change this trajectory while building the highly skilled workforce we need to compete for jobs in the decades ahead.

As an elected official and a parent, I believe this is the best investment we can make in our economy and our future. It’s time to get this done.

Jack Duran is the District 1 supervisor for Placer County.