Published 06/13/12

Smithfield, Bryant working together

This opinion piece, written by James Damron, vice president for University Advancement, was published by the Valley Breeze on July 2, 2012:

As Rhode Island communities continue to feel the pinch of the "Great Recession," some political leaders in Smithfield have begun to eye not-for-profit organizations as potential sources of additional tax revenue. They argue that the land and buildings not-for-profit organizations use to carry out their missions would otherwise generate tax revenue to benefit the community. Some political leaders even claim that not-for-profit organizations increase the cost of municipal services.

That is certainly not the case for an institution like Bryant University, which maintains its own streets, collects its own garbage, pays all the costs of water and sewer, and employs its own Department of Public Safety. Viewing not-for-profit organizations as just another source of revenue fails to appreciate the many ways in which they benefit their communities and enrich the lives of their neighbors.

Long-time Smithfield residents will recall the state of economic development along Douglas Pike (Route 7) when Bryant moved its campus from Providence to Smithfield in 1971. Fast forward to 2012 and note the vibrant commercial corridor that Route 7 has become. The area around Bryant has developed into one of the most successful economic centers in the state. Why is this? Fidelity Investments, which built a 550-acre office park across from Bryant University, now employs more than 3,000 people. The Route 7 corridor has also seen the addition of Citizens Bank, Navigant Credit Union and the many restaurants and other small businesses whose success depends in part on Bryant faculty, staff and students. It is no exaggeration to say that this robust economic development is attributable in large part to Bryant's move to Smithfield.

These are but some of the economic benefits the town has experienced as a result of Bryant's move to Smithfield. Let's also consider the estimated $10 million contributed to the local economy in Smithfield each year by Bryant and its faculty, staff, students, parents and guests. Additionally, Bryant is home to the John H. Chafee Center for International Business which has been credited with helping our state businesses - including several in Smithfield - increase their exports by 53 percent, ensuring that the manufacturing industry remains vibrant in Rhode Island.

Bryant has also strongly supported the local school system in Smithfield in tangible and significant ways. Over the past decade, we have worked with Supt. O'Brien to provide Smithfield students with a number of enriching educational opportunities they would not otherwise have been able to afford. This year, for example, Bryant will provide four full scholarships to the top graduates of Smithfield High. Bryant also provides a total of $322,438 in financial aid to 18 Smithfield students currently attending Bryant. In addition, many of our staff and faculty live in Smithfield and actively support school and other community organizations.

Bryant University provides numerous intellectual, cultural and athletic events open to residents of Smithfield. From the acclaimed musicians who perform throughout the year at the President's Cultural Series to the special speakers who provide insights on economics, politics and world events, Bryant provides an immeasurable source of intellectual and cultural enrichment for members of the community. Notable figures such as historian David McCullough, former GE CEO Jack Welsh, television newswoman Mika Brzezinski, and former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton have spoken at Bryant in recent years. The annual Bryant-sponsored July 4th Independence Day Celebration with fireworks and live music releases the town from a financial obligation and offers the community a wonderful opportunity to enjoy this time-honored event commemorating our heritage. The University's athletic events and summer sports camps provide the community with additional resources for Smithfield families.

As Smithfield's political leaders consider whether to support various proposals to tax Rhode Island's colleges and universities, it is important to step back and considered the larger picture. We must bear in mind that the proposed tax would not be imposed on a faceless institution, but ultimately on individual students, faculty and staff and, indirectly, on the many Smithfield businesses Bryant supports every year.

Make no mistake: the imposition of such payments would substantially diminish the level of support the University is able to provide its students at a time when families already struggle to pay for the education of their children. It would also reduce the funding the University has available to pay employee salaries and benefits, and to fund the construction and maintenance required for Bryant to attract new students in this extraordinarily challenging environment. So, let's encourage town and state leaders to work with Bryant's administration in an innovative, collaborative effort toward shared goals for the greater good and a stronger community.