I want to revisit some news from the first week of this month because although it made the front page, I think in many ways it was lost, and certainly a larger context was left undiscussed.
May 5 was a day of big economic development announcements for High Point — more than $450 million worth.
In more than 30 years in journalism, I have been present for news with a sum like that just one time: when Google announced a $600 million expansion at its data center in Lenoir.
That was notable to me also because Google required background checks just to get on its campus for the announcement, and after using my full name and Social Security number to be sure I had no serious criminal record and could be trusted to sit in a tent over 100 yards from any building, Google provided me with a name tag that read “Stephen Lucas.”
But I digress.
The larger capital investment of the two May 5 announcements, as it happens, involved a data center. DC Blox confirmed plans for a multi-tenant data center in the Piedmont Centre business park, which could entail a capital investment of $305 million, the largest in the city’s tax base in at least 20 years.
Not many jobs are attached to data centers — DC Blox estimates nine in this case (How nine is an estimate is beyond my writer’s brain. 10 is a number I would call an estimate; nine is a specific calculation. But I digress again.) — but a $305 million capital investment amounts to significant property tax revenue in future years, even after property tax rebates are factored in. And because there are so few workers, a data center is a business that requires almost no expansion of city services, so it’s almost entirely positive revenue.
Yet the larger economic development announcement of that day had the smaller price tag: that High Point University will invest $150 million to develop a new dental school.
It might be easy to miss the significance of this because it’s yet another expansion by what in the past 16 years has become an ever-expanding institution, but each expansion like this is huge.
This dental school will amount eventually to about 200 additional people a year living and spending money in the High Point area. That’s largely going to be students, but students rent housing, buy food, see movies, buy clothes and go to local events.
This is essentially like a new factory coming to town employing almost 200 workers. Any city I’ve ever lived in would throw a party for that.
That’s the larger context. In the past 16 years HPU has grown by more than 4,000 students. Students aren’t trees — they don’t just stand still, breathe and occupy space. They contribute to the larger ecosystem of the city, the economy, the culture, the sense of what High Point “feels” like.
For a stark illustration of the difference college students make, visit someplace like Cullowhee, home of Western Carolina University. That brings more than 10,000 students to a town with a permanent population of fewer than 7,000, but that’s precisely my point: What do you find in Cullowhee and nearby Sylva that would not be there if not for the college population?
High Point has more than 114,000 permanent residents, but the contributions of even a university the size of HPU to the daily life of the city are significant, and with every expansion by the university those contributions expand.
Ten years from now, there may still be data centers, and perhaps the one in High Point will have doubled or tripled in size. City planners and administrators will be able to cite exactly what that will have meant for the municipal budget and local taxpayers.
But most people won’t even know it’s there.
High Point University’s announcement, though, means the next 10 years will bring several hundred additional students here, each contributing a thread woven through the city’s fabric. Whether or not you ever personally meet them, you will see the difference they make.