With its towering bluffs, majestic river and proximity to the Twin Cities, Rochester and prospective employers, the small, picturesque city of Red Wing is seemingly an ideal setting for a four-year college.
It is a classic college town, some city leaders say, without a classic four-year college.
Business, philanthropic and government leaders in Red Wing are getting creative in trying to change that. They are resorting to an unusual tactic to try to lure a four-year school to the city’s borders, assembling more than 75 packets of sales pitches and sending them to colleges throughout the United States. They are hoping to drum up interest in establishing a new campus smack in the heart of this town of about 16,500 in southern Minnesota.
“It is a long shot,” Mayor Daniel Bender acknowledged. But, he said, “we have a community here that is pretty forward-thinking.”
The packets, from the Red Wing Area Higher Education Partnership, extol everything from the city’s fast Internet speeds to its outdoor amenities and entrepreneurial spirit. They boast about a community that values higher education and sits in a state with many Fortune 500 companies.
Community leaders have cast a wide net. Now, they just need to snag a school.
Tech workers wanted
The push to attract a four-year school was launched when local business leaders complained they were having trouble filling technology positions, particularly those in cyber security, digital forensics and gamification, leaders said.
“The employers are saying we need people with the technical skills … but they also have to be able to communicate and they have to interact,” said Tom Longlet, a member of the committee and a longtime member of the board of the Jones Family Foundation, which has been spearheading the effort. “They have to be communicators and thinkers as well as technicians.”
So they are looking to create a campus that puts an emphasis on technology and liberal arts, a niche that’s different from what’s offered at the two-year technical college in town as well as the four-year colleges already in the region, they said.
Leaders aim to capitalize on 1-gigabit broadband infrastructure already available in Red Wing — high-speed Internet 100 times faster than the U.S. average. Because of that, Red Wing is part of the US Ignite program to spur innovation and keep the country globally competitive in the next generation of technology.
While no specific site for a college has been picked out, leaders said they envision a campus near the city’s downtown riverfront, where shops and restaurants and a YMCA already exist.
“We think campus life would be best situated if it was as close to the downtown core as possible,” Longlet said. “There are a lot of amenities that I think would complement a campus setting there.”
A four-year institution would bring a major economic and population boost to the town, Longlet said. In the region, non-metro cities with a four-year college grew more than 15 percent since 2000, he said, compared with Red Wing’s 2.3 percent growth.
‘A big challenge’
Longlet and other leaders acknowledge it’s a difficult time to shop the idea of building a new college campus. Minnesota state colleges and universities have been struggling with declining enrollments and budgets for several years.
Several four-year schools already operate in small towns within about an hour’s drive of Red Wing, such as St. Olaf and Carleton in Northfield, St. Mary’s and Winona State universities in Winona, and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Paul Cerkvenik, president of the Minnesota Private College Council, pointed out that the number of high school graduates in the state has declined, though that trend may be bottoming out. Existing colleges also try to adapt to the needs of the market, he said.
Still, he said, he understands why Red Wing leaders are trying to lure a school
“They are usually significant employers and economic drivers … they bring a lot of social and community vitality to any town that has one,” he said. “I think it’s a big challenge. It seems like people in Red Wing who have spoken on the topic recognize that it wouldn’t be an easy thing to accomplish.”
Nevertheless, the city is prepared to offer incentives to schools that might be interested, leaders said. That could range from donating city land for a campus to offering funding, depending upon a school’s needs.
“We’re just sort of waiting now to see what happens,” said City Council administrator Kay Kuhlmann. “We’re excited about being very proactive,”
Longlet said he knows the group’s mission is “a very, very tall order, but we do think it’s a dream worth pursuing because of the impact on the community and because of the need for this kind of education.”