Leaders of Montgomery County colleges and universities met Tuesday with the county Planning Commission at Ursinus College to discuss the role of higher education in the new comprehensive plan, Montco 2040: A Shared Vision.

Over the past year, according to the comprehensive plan's webpage on the county website, the 28-member comprehensive plan steering committee reviewed reports detailing county demographic, economic, health, and environmental trends, as well as solicited input from approximately 2,500 residents through public workshops, surveys, web-based forums and social media. The steering committee used the information to formulate a draft of themes and goals for the comprehensive plan.

The MCPC Board invited President of Ursinus College Bobby Fong, Chancellor of Penn State Abington campus Karen Sandler, President of Montgomery County Community College Karen Stout, President of Gwynedd Mercy University Kathleen Owens, and Vice Provost of Temple University Ambler Vicki Lewis to give their input on the draft. The roundtable discussion regarding the future of higher education in Montgomery County was facilitated by Marc Jonas, planning commission chairman.

County Commissioner Leslie Richards, who is also the former county director of commerce, stressed the importance of input to the comprehensive plan from the institutions gathered.

'We are very interested in what you have to say. This is not just a data dump for us but we also want to come together,' Richards said. 'We are looking for you to really help us with the millennials: the student part of how this county will be moving forward.'

Brian Regli, the director of commerce for the county, echoed Richards' statement.

'The people who sit to my left here are key engines to economic development for our county,' Regli said about the education leaders.

Regli pointed to the institutions as active participants in county workforce investment programs, as stimulating local and county growth through institutional growth, and as investing in human capital.

'Part of the challenge is ... how do you link the economic fortunes of our county and these local communities to the growth and expansion of these local institutions. ... Ultimately, you're talking about creating that human capital that leads to economic development,' Regli said.

The targeted trends, themes and goals of the draft were introduced at the start of the meeting by Brian O'Leary, section chief of county planning for the planning commission. O'Leary broke down the themes into three major components: connected communities, sustainable places and vibrant economy.

The comprehensive plan hopes to connect communities, according to O'Leary, by increasing collaboration between county stakeholders, increasing non-car transportation options, and creating 'walkable' downtown areas. Sustainable places would be created by investing in infrastructure, green and resilient energy systems, stormwater management and conservation of natural resources and open space, which in turn lead to healthy lifestyles of citizens. O'Leary listed ways to invest in a vibrant economy as improving transportation access to businesses, redeveloping current infrastructure, and attracting new and retaining current businesses.

The leaders of the colleges highlighted how many of the themes in the draft are the same challenges facing their ability to attract and retain local students, whether traditional undergradudate and graduate students or those returning to receive or complete a degree.

A main topic of concern was transportation.

Stout said students at Montgomery County Community College need reliable forms of transportation to get to class. A lot of MCCC students commute and increased traffic or limited alternative travel options are the difference between getting to class or not.

Long and Lewis said Ursinus and Temple Ambler have similar problems in the opposite direction, with students having no viable and timely options except to drive to go shopping on the weekend or get into the city.

Each institutional leader said shuttle buses have been the most effective means of dealing with transportation issues, but students' desire to stay local on the weekends or after graduation depends on increased access to those 'vibrant downtown areas' and open spaces instead of malls and shopping centers.

Fong noted that another attraction for students and young faculty to stay local, thereby benefitting the institutions and their communities, is diverse and affordable housing, instead of traditional $300,000 to $400,000 houses.

Additionally, the institutional leaders stressed the importance of communication between local municipalities and not only college administrations, but also their students.

Because institutions and their students have increasing interest and expertise in green infrastructure, stormwater management and environmental sustainability, they want to engage with their local communities to create the small-town, natural environment feel for downtown areas that is currently a theme of the comprehensive plan.

Richards said she would welcome increased student participation at municipal meetings, perhaps working toward classroom incentives for students who participate or forming partnerships between various committees and institutions. The educational leaders agreed that today's students seek out ways to participate in their communities, always looking for ways to gain experience, while volunteering in ways that give back.

The county planning commission encourages residents to join in the conversation for planning the future of the county by attending upcoming workshops and meetings and by taking an online survey of the draft.

Below is a complete list of the 25 colleges and universities and their affiliated campuses in the county:

Academy of the New Church Theological School, Arcadia University, Biblical Theological Seminary, Bryn Athyn College, Bryn Mawr College, DeSales University Lansdale, DeVry University Fort Washington and King of Prussia, Gratz College, Gwynedd Mercy College, Harcum College, Haverford College, Manor College, Montgomery County Community College Blue Bell and Pottstown, Penn State Abington, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rosemont College, Salus University, St. Joseph University, Tempe University Ambler and Fort Washington, University of Pheonix, Ursinus College, and Westminster Theological Seminary.

Information from the Times Herald, www.timesherald.com

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