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Community Colleges as Economic Engines

Terry Calaway, President, Johnson County Community College

Guest blog by Terry Calaway, President, Johnson County Community College

ED NOTE: With 50,000 students a year enrolled in credit and noncredit classes, Johnson County Community College is the state’s largest institution of higher education. JCCC offers a full range of undergraduate credit courses and 50 career and certificate programs that prepare students for employment. JCCC’s noncredit workforce development program is the largest, most comprehensive in the Kansas City area.

Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kansas, was fortunate to host Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank during her visit to Kansas City July 23. We were honored to show the Acting Secretary the facility on campus we share with BNSF Railway in a model partnership of industry and education, one that demonstrates how community colleges can serve as economic engines for the county.

Because Kansas City is one of the most important freight transportation hubs in the Midwest, BNSF is building a 443-acre intermodal facility in the southern part of Johnson County, Kansas (a Kansas City suburb). The facility will help the region’s economy grow by shifting more freight traffic from the highway to the rails. The increasing demand to move more freight by rail coupled with the number of current rail workers who will be retiring means that freight railroads will hire more than 15,000 employees this year alone.

JCCC is prepared for these changes, thanks to a long and beneficial relationship with BNSF Railway. The college first entered into partnership discussions with BNSF in 1986. The result is the largest railroad training facility in the country, founded on the college campus. Originally intended to train only BNSF employees, the training center over the years has come to serve other railroads as well. As many as 14,000 railroad employees come to JCCC each year for training from the United States and Mexico.

As part of its agreement with BNSF and the city of Overland Park, JCCC built the Industrial Technical Center on campus to house the railway's national training programs and provide additional office and classroom space for the college. The $2.9 million building was financed through city revenue bonds, with the college assuming one-third of the cost of construction and receiving ownership of the building after 10 years. BNSF exercises its option to lease the facilities on a five-year basis. The college initially received nine classrooms, warehouse space and laboratory access in addition to the responsibility for building maintenance. An expansion to the ITC expanded space for both BNSF and JCCC.

In 1993-94, the college and BNSF established the National Academy of Railroad Science (NARS) at JCCC, leading to the first associate-degree programs in railroad operations in the nation. More than 500 students are enrolled each year in credit programs leading to associate of applied science degrees and vocational certificates in railroad electronics, railroad industrial technology and railroad operations.

The economic impact on the community and the city of Overland Park as a result of the partnership between JCCC and BNSF has been about $60 million, created by the thousands of students who come to campus for training and who need to book hotel rooms, take their meals in restaurants and shop at local stores.

We were proud to show Acting Secretary Blank how JCCC serves as an economic engine for Johnson County through its partnerships and activities that reflect the diversity of the county’s economy and the agility of the college to meet a variety of economic needs in fields such as transportation.

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