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Simpson, Indianola embrace each other’s strengths


Indianola and Simpson College practically grew up together, with the college having been founded in 1860, just 11 years after the town established its roots. Nearly 150 years later, the Simpson campus, its students and its employees play a critical role in the life of the community.

Nine months out of the year, Simpson students live in Indianola, buy groceries, go out to eat and occasionally go shopping with what little income they may have.

To residents, their arrival and departure may be noticeable, but for many business owners in town, the effect is hardly felt.

“The student impact on most businesses is fairly marginal,” said Tom Schmidt, assistant professor of management at Simpson and owner of the Victorian Cottage Shoppe and For All Seasons. “There really aren’t any retailers that cater to the college students, which just amazes me, because you’d think there would be. But with only about 800 residential students, you couldn’t survive with a business that caters only to college students.”

Schmidt said a survey four years ago found that Simpson students’ annual discretionary spending totaled about $500,000, and only about 10 percent of that is spent in Indianola. At his businesses, students’ purchases account for about 5 percent of revenues, though the college as a whole, including faculty and staff, accounts for 30 percent of his business.

He struggles to communicate with potential customers, realizing that college students, who usually listen to music on CDs and iPods, not radio, watch videos rather than television and don’t read newspapers, are “advertising resistant.” For the past year, he has worked with a student organization to get its business, the Storm Cellar, up and running on the town square. Even as a student-run business, it lost money 10 months out of the past year.

“There’s a tremendous amount of potential if businesses could capture it,” he said.

Even so, the economic effects of a small college population on a town the size of Indianola goes beyond student spending, according to Simpson President John Byrd. Statistics show that the total economic effect of the college on Indianola is approximately $65 million to $70 million.

“I think one of the most important roles we play as an educational institution is making it attractive for companies to want to locate around higher education,” said Byrd, still in his first month at Simpson after leaving the University of Evansville. “It makes available an educated workforce, it makes available opportunities for a current workforce to get its skills upgraded, and we make a huge contribution to the quality of life in terms of the availability of art, music, theater and athletics.”

Simpson continues to maintain its status as one of the top 10 small Midwestern colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings. Byrd said the school’s statewide and regional reputation, as well as its location in Indianola and close to a metropolitan area, continues to serve it well in its recruitment efforts.

In recent years, the college’s enrollment has experienced a slow but steady increase, going from 1,364 in 1995-1996, to a record 1,648 in 2004-2005. To accommodate the larger student population, the college has spent approximately $15.5 million on capital improvement projects over the past six years, according to Ken Birkenholtz, vice president for business and finance. Those projects primarily have been residence facility renovations, additions and acquisitions.

He said the college is raising funds for a new student center, and is considering an addition to Blank Performing Arts Center.

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