Funding. It’s a word that strikes fear in public and private institutions alike. An almost sisyphean task that repeats on daily, monthly, annual cycles without end. It echos on the radio, online, in emails from museums, charities, and alma maters. And in the end, how do you know if the chase for funding had the desired, tangible effect?
For one university, the ease of securing state funding and demonstrating the efficacy of its fledgling business incubator program hinged on demonstrably connecting its construction and operations to the vitality of the local economy.
The Research Park at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hosts an ever-expanding workforce comprised of students and local residents which nurtures small, independent businesses as well as hosts a collection of research divisions for a short list of tech companies that call Silicon Valley to mind.
“The mission of the Research Park is much in collaboration with the mission of the University of Illinois,” said Ed McMillan, chairman of the Board of Managers for the Research Park and a University of Illinois trustee. “In addition to teaching—in addition to research and outreach—it’s also commercialization of technology.”
Still, the question remains: Is it worth it to invest in a cradle for tech companies situated in swathes of sprawling, isolated farmland?
Bridging the gap between Big Ideas and Independent Business
On its surface, it may not look like a solid investment. But more and more, university-run research parks are popping up all over the country. Their inherent value seems transient since startups and their talent getting bought up by larger tech companies has become the rule rather than the exception. The enduring economic impacts, however, can be stunning.
In 2011, after ten years of operations, the Research Park decided to perform an economic impact analysis to gain a data-backed understanding of its role in supporting the local economy. The study revealed that the park supported hundreds of jobs, stimulated significant local spending from businesses and households, and even generated an increase in wages in neighboring counties.
Measure the impact, then repeat
But the genius stroke came four years later when the Research Park produced a follow-up study to show how the park’s growth and the state’s investment had played out over time. The new study tracked economic impacts which included hundreds more jobs than had been supported in 2011, as well as millions of dollars in economic output.
Significantly, a project which drew initial investments in 2001 totalling $116 million (made by Fox/Atkins Development, the University of Illinois, UIRP LLC, the tenants in the Research Park, the State of Illinois, and the City of Champaign) generated $802,000 in state taxes and $150,000 in tax revenues for Champaign County alone.
Given these findings, administrators of the park are enthusiastic about repeating the economic impact analysis of the Research Park in future years to track its continued growth and deepening links to the community. “Our hope is that we’ll have that land totally utilized 10 years from now,” said McMillan. “We’re excited about the Research Park and we’re excited about the next 10 years.”
Putting the ‘fun’ back in ‘funding’
What’s perhaps most empowering about the Research Park’s story is that the strategy of employing economic impact analysis to demonstrate its value to the county and state is something that any organization seeking funding can do. Hundreds of other public and private institutions have used economic analyses of many kinds to great effect—securing funding as well as affecting public policy and unlocking tax incentives, among others.
Knowing employment numbers, wages paid, or investment totals for operations or construction is just the beginning. The analysis will reveal so much more. And the road to funding gets much, much easier.