Within 20 years there could easily be a million people in the Kootenai County-Spokane corridor, says University of Idaho president Bob Hoover.
He wants his school to be smack dab in the middle, serving the two-state community with the Riverbend Research and Training Park in Post Falls. No one is more eager for that than Gus Johnson, mayor of this former sawmill town.
“I look at this as the first domino in a whole line of dominos that will fall,” he said. “When you get the UI in here, you’ll have a whole bunch of things happen.”
The research park, an unusual private-public partnership, faces some crucial dates.
In mid-April, the state Board of Education must decide whether to give final approval for the project. That includes using university money to pay a manager. There’s already a list of finalists for the job.
But before the board can act, the UI Foundation must agree to accept the Jacklin Land Co.’s gift of 28 acres to launch the project.
The idea is for the foundation to build a 40,000-square-foot building using the acreage as collateral. Ten thousand square feet of space would go rent-free to the university.
“The key to this is to lease the space to private users; the profits would repay the foundation,” Hoover said.
The Jacklin family has set aside 100 acres for the research park, which would be located along Pleasant View Road between the Spokane River and the Post Falls Outlet Mall. The Jacklins have long been trying to fill the commerce park with industrial clients, with some success.
The family will give the university another acre for every three acres sold to businesses recruited to the park.
What kind of businesses?
“Emerging electronics and multimedia companies,” said Hoover. “Tourism, recreation, medical services that are transforming the timber and mining economy. Companies interested in water quality, a regional problem.”
He hopes the Inland Northwest’s quality of life will lure “people coming to get away from what they thought they were getting away from when they moved to Seattle.”
The university’s programs at the park would include:
Graduate and continuing education courses in engineering and technology courses, plus specialized business courses.
The Idaho Water Resources Institute. Its small staff now works out of an old house on the North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene.
The Idaho Manufacturing Alliance. The Idaho Department of Commerce has offered a grant to start the alliance, which would be similar to an agriculture extension program.
A graduate program in engineering management.
UI booster, alumni, recruitment and development offices.
One of the park’s biggest selling points already exists in the adjacent Riverbend Commerce Park. It’s the North Idaho College Workforce Training Center, which provides vocational-technical courses often tailored to the needs of individual businesses.
The presence of the training center especially excites Bob Potter of the Kootenai County economic development group, Jobs Plus.
“The key to this project is having both advanced and vocational education,” he said. “Three out of four young people do not pursue a four-year degree.”
Potter said he’s talked with two California businesses that are intrigued with the park’s promise of both a research link and employee training.
His recruiting isn’t premature, even though the research park still is in the proposal stage. University officials know that bankers won’t be willing to lend money for the project if businesses aren’t buying into it.
They can’t even get started on the $4.4 million building without knowing what kind of features its business tenants want.
Ground could be broken as early as this fall. The research park could open for business in a year, said Jerry Wallace, UI vice president for finance and administration.
Pat Leffel, project manager for the Jacklins’ existing Riverbend Commerce Park, envisions professors and executives sitting on benches along the river, exchanging ideas as they eat their lunch.
The coming decades are seen as a turning point for higher education in the Idaho Panhandle, and the research park is potentially a part of that.
At the urging of Board of Education member Judy Meyer, the UI has begun working closely with North Idaho College and Lewis-Clark State College to provide opportunities in the Panhandle without duplication.
University officials feel sure that the Board of Education will give their research park the green light. But Meyer suggested it won’t be without some reservation.
“Over all, the board is pleased with a chance at some innovative combinations of private enterprise and education,” she said.
“We also recognize that we have such funding restraints. We need to worry about sending mixed signals to the universities. It’s great to grow, but we don’t have (much) money.”
State taxpayers wouldn’t be spending much on the research park, at least to start.
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