As Ferndale Contemplates Baker College’s “Community Fit,” Owosso Serves as Example

As Ferndale Contemplates Baker College’s “Community Fit,” Owosso Serves as Example

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 10, 2019)

Ferndale, Owosso, MI- As the City of Ferndale and Baker College continue with negotiations for constructing a campus in Downtown Ferndale, one of the key questions – and points of debate – is whether or not the college is a good “community fit.”

Those in City Hall are looking at a number of factors to determine community fit.  But we wanted to see for ourselves if Baker is, already, a good neighbor.  So Oakland County Times went to another town that Baker calls home – Owosso.

Baker has locations in Cadillac, Jackson, Muskegon, and Owosso, plus the locations in Auburn Hills, Allen Park, Clinton Township, and Flint that it plans on closing in 2020 as it makes its move, possibly to Ferndale.

While the Auburn Hills location is in an area near both Oakland Community College and Oakland University, the campus in Owosso has a more prominent presence within the community because of its location at the edge of a Downtown area.

Owosso is located about 25 miles west of Flint. It has a population of around 14,000 people in 5.39 square miles. The downtown area seems about double the size of Ferndale’s Downtown. Ferndale has about 20,000 people in 3.88 square miles.  The median household income in Owosso, based on the 2000 Census, was $32,576 while in Ferndale it was $45,629.

The campus itself isn’t a visual match to what the plans are for Ferndale.  It was built in the 80s and 90s, and it includes several buildings, student housing, and surface parking.  While Ferndale’s campus would have a more modern appearance, the Owosso campus does show that the property is well-maintained and clean.  Newer additions include a state of the art Health Science Building and the Auto/Diesel Institute. There is even a sculpture on campus, a large metal butterfly.

Though Baker has it’s own distinct campus, students are within walking distance of shops, restaurants, bars, and other businesses in Downtown Owosso.

In addition to visiting, we followed up with people in the community, and looked online for examples of bad press, but did not find anything noteworthy. No one we spoke with had anything bad to say.

Welcome Center

Though Oakland County Times went on a Saturday, when classes were not in session, there was still activity on campus. The fitness center parking lot was packed, and the Welcome Center was being used to host a symposium for the Shiawasse Chapter of the Medical Assistants Association.

Organizers of the symposium weren’t expecting a reporter to show up, but they were happy to talk about Baker and their experiences.

Kimberly Poag is the Program Director of Medical Assisting at Baker College’s Owosso campus. She earned her BA in Healthcare Administration from Baker, then went on to get her Masters online through University of Phoenix. She helped coordinate the symposium which helped attendees stay up on the latest information and get continuing education credits.

“Baker is always opening their door for events like this.  Community groups can meet here.  They do things with the schools,” Poag said.  “The Girl Scouts just had their cookie sale, and all the cookies for the region came here.  There was nowhere to put all these cookies, so Baker let them come here, and the parking lot turned into this cookie distribution center. There were all these volunteers, people coming to pick up boxes. It was something.”  Her favorite, she said, was a recent daddy-daughter dance held for the community at the Welcome Center.

When asked what she thought about the quality of Baker, she said, “I’ve been here 30 years and I love it.  I still love coming to work. We help place students throughout the state.  I go to places like Henry Ford Health System and I see professionals working there that I remember as students.  It is a good feeling…

“It’s a different kind of experience than a big university. It’s not a place to come party.  We don’t have sports teams.  It’s place where you can be really focused on your career and what you want to do…. Our motto is quality education at an affordable price. This helps students get real life experiences and get jobs.  It’s a very purposeful experience.”

Partnership with Schools

Baker College works with local school districts through all of their campuses.  In Owosso that means partnering local area schools and Shiawassee Regional Service District to offer courses in health sciences, automotive, IT, CRJ. This partnership has been in place for over 20 year.

Even before Baker had their eyes on Downtown Ferndale, they had a presence in Ferndale through outreach from their Auburn Hills campus to offer classes to University High School students.  The Early College program launched in 2015 and ran until University High School changed locations and the connection was dropped in the midst of all the changes happening as Ferndale Schools restructured.

Economic Impact, Fostering Community Leadership

When we reached out to Owosso Downtown Development Director Jeff Deason to inquire about the impact of the college on the Downtown businesses, we learned that Deason is a Baker College graduate.

“I was a non-traditional adult student. I went back to school there and received a BBA,” Deason said.  “I’ve since completed my Masters degree at Michigan State in Management, Strategy and Leadership. Baker gave me the opportunity to better myself and I took advantage of it. I will always be thankful.”

In terms of economic impact, Deason said “ Baker has brought a great deal of value to the Owosso community. Their staff and students spend money here. Their grads work here. Also, they make Owosso a college town, which is unique for a small town like ours.

“They allow their staff to serve in the community. They also work with local employers to ensure a talent pipeline exists between their students and the employers, and that their programs match the needs of the employers. There would be a huge void if they were not committed to Owosso.”

Baker is also involved in the Shawiasse Regional Chamber of Commerce, where they have been active members since opening in 1984.

Deason was proud of a program that Baker is an instrumental partner in The Cook Family Foundation’s Leadership Shiawassee Program which “provides creative leaders for the region by educating participants about the region, encouraging them to get involved in their community, and providing the knowledge for meaningful action. Leadership Shiawassee provides a mechanism to develop and enhance the skills and knowledge necessary for today’s leaders to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s workplace and community.”

“We have over 460 graduates, and the majority are in leadership roles within Shiawassee County,” Deason said of the Leadership Shiawassee program.

Ferndale’s “Community Fit” Expectations

Jordan Twardy, Ferndale’s Community and Economic Development Director, laid out what criteria the City is using to determine community fit which includes:

Tax Equivalence and Return on Investment: Baker is a nonprofit, so they won’t be paying property taxes. The city is looking at what amount the property could bring in if it were used for some for-profit purpose such as apartments or retail.  The city is also looking at what other ways the project could benefit the city financially, including the possibility of office or residential components to the parking deck part of the project.  There are also other potential benefits, such as increasing parking.  “The city is also ensuring the versatility of whatever is built, i.e. making sure that what is built can be easily repurposed/reused in a way that is positive for the community if Baker is no longer there.”  In a recent Planning Commission meeting, representatives from Baker explained that a building like the one proposed could easily be converted into office or residential uses.

Public Safety: “This means ensuring sufficient resources for adequate police and security presence, based on the projected need for these services as a result of the expected influx of students and staff in the downtown,” Twardy said.

Place:  The City is considering whether the development enhances walkability and street experience, provides support for multiple forms of mobility, and ensures environmental sustainability in project design.

Community Partnerships: “This means quantifying opportunities for Baker to leverage its capacity as an institution to engage with and support local community organizations, neighborhood groups, and specific community causes, such as educational access and affordability,” Twardy said.

Timeline

Baker College and the City of Ferndale entered into an Exclusive Negotiating Rights Agreement (ENRA) which gives them until April to agree on a plan, though extensions could be granted if negotiations are moving forward in good faith. 

Several community members have expressed concern that the project is moving too quickly, often comparing it to the dot project.  The dot project was created by the city, using city resources. The city invested the money in research and design before seeking out a developer to build what they had conceptualized. There was no deadline, because there were no negotiations taking place, and no outside parties were spending money on the plans.

In the case of Baker College, the process of creating plans and funding research lies on the college, though there is also city staff time involved in the negotiating process as well.  ENRA agreements protect businesses from spending money throughout long, drawn-out processes with cities. It also prevents cities from working with multiple developers, inevitably costing the losing developers money needlessly. It also protects the City by requiring developers to be efficient.  ENRAs are often used when businesses and cities work together on public-private partnerships, because they offer protection to both sides. The timeline can be extended as long as both parties are comfortable with the progress and direction of the planning process.

The Future of Baker

Baker College is an independent nonprofit college that focuses on degrees that prepare students for specific careers such as medical assisting, criminal justice, computer aided design, nursing, business, dental hygiene, education, finance, human resources, information systems, veterinary technology and more.  The cost is generally more than community colleges and less than state universities.

Graduation rates have been an issue raised by some residents who question the quality of the school. Online reports show numbers ranging from 9-21% depending on the campus and the years for the data.  As far as private colleges, Baker is at the low end of the list. They are, however,  in the same ballpark as schools like Henry Ford College (7%), Jackson College (10%), Macomb Community College (11%), Oakland Community College Bloomfield Hills (11%), Mid Michigan Community College (12%), Wayne County Community College (12%), Delta College (14%) and Grand Rapids Community College (14%).   State-wide, twenty public colleges had graduation rates of 20% or less according to  CollegeTuitionCompare.com.

Baker Chief Operating Officer Jacqui Spicer has attended several meetings in Ferndale about the project.  She responded to questions about the quality of the school and its graduation rates with both an explanation and a plan.

For most of its history Baker was an open enrollment institution, meaning they would accept students who could not get in to other schools, whether due to grades or not being able to afford tuition.  This meant a greater percentage of students did not finish.  But there is also a lower graduation rate at Baker and community colleges, because those schools are a stepping stone to other colleges.  A student may go to Baker to get their grades up, then transfer to another school.  Students may also leave college to work full time.

That said, Baker also went through a restructuring in 2015.  “We took a good look at what we were doing well, and what we could improve,” Spicer said.  Baker began requiring students with lower GPAs to attend college readiness classes before enrolling.  “Graduation rates look at six year cycles and we are just a couple of years in.  But we can see the retention rates already starting to go up. We are on the right track.”

In the past 5 years, over 20,000 students have graduated from Baker’s various campuses. Spicer said the Ferndale campus could support 1,500 total students, with about 300 there on any given class day.

The move to Ferndale is also part of Baker’s strategy moving forward. Spicer said coming to Ferndale is part of changing the college’s image and approach.  “Students want to come to something. They want to be part of a community. They don’t want to drive to a campus, pull in to park for a class, and leave,” she said.

Ferndale is in a central location for students to come from all over SE Michigan, with proximity to I-75 and I-696, as well as more accessibility to public transit than their current Auburn Hills location.  “We look forward to being in a community with a lot going on, and that we can be part of,” she said.

Baker has already signed up to be part of Ferndale Pride as a Diamond Level Sponsor, and Spicer said they are looking forward to being involved with the schools and other community groups as they traditionally have been in other cities, like Owosso.

Community Meeting March 21

Baker College is hosting and facilitating a Community Meeting and Open House on Thursday, March 21 from 6:30-8. at Incubizo, 1938 Burdette St., Ferndale 48220.

Twardy said that the City is listening to all the feedback and questions.  “As the community conversation about this proposed project continues, the City will be presenting a preliminary Community Benefits Agreement that reflects specific, concrete commitments on the above activities,” he said.  “This preliminary agreement is being formed via negotiations between city staff and Baker leadership, and its contents are heavily influenced by the input we’ve received from the Ferndale community.”

Previous stories:

Ferndale Planning Commission Sees First Round of Baker College Options (Feb. 21, 2019)

Baker College Considering Move to Ferndale (Jan. 11, 2019)

More info:

Baker College

City of Ferndale Development Website

 

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