What will the Niagara region do without all the students?

Brock University plans to go mostly online in September — and experts say that will have a major economic impact
By Justin Chandler - Published on Jun 15, 2020
Research shows that Brock University contributes between $250 and $450 million annually to the Regional Municipality of Niagara. (Stuart Hendrie)



It took Brock University professor Jeffery Boggs and grad student Lauren Peddle four months to calculate the economic footprint that their university has on the Niagara region, where the St. Catharines institution is located. Boggs recalls going through “literally thousands” of transaction records to code and calculate the information that later appeared in their 2018 report, The Brock University Effect. “It just is a big blur,” he says. 

The magnitude of the impact — which, by at least some estimates, is in the hundreds of millions of dollars — now has local politicians, university administration, businesses, and landlords all concerned about what Brock’s planned move to mostly online classes in September could mean for the college town. “We feel we have a responsibility to be really thoughtful about the economic impact that we have across the region,” says Gervan Fearon, Brock’s president and an economist who worked closely with Boggs on the 2018 report. 

By Boggs’s and Peddle’s estimates, and counting both direct (the actual dollar amounts spent) and indirect (the added economic value of each dollar — for example, one dollar spent by the institution is estimated to add an additional $0.50 to the regional economy) impacts, Brock contributes between $250 and $450 million annually to the Regional Municipality of Niagara. 

The researchers break spending down into four categories: capital expenditures, which include longer-term spending on infrastructure and equipment; operational expenditures, such as payroll; and student and visitor spending. Boggs projects that student and visitor spending will take the biggest hit come September, as he expects many of the students who would have come to St. Catharines to attend Brock will remain in their hometowns. 

Of Brock’s 19,000 students, about half live outside the region. Assuming the 7,700 students who normally live off-campus in the city aren’t there, Boggs says, “that is just a tad over $13 million a month that are not coming into the Niagara economy due to student expenditures on things like rent, gasoline, food, entertainment — that kind of stuff.”

Mishka Balsom, president of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, says that, if you combined Brock University with the Niagara College campuses in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in nearby Welland, they would constitute the biggest employer in the Niagara region. “So it's a critical sector,” she says. “They're critical to Niagara’s economy.” Balsom does note that the effects of a smaller number of students coming into the region in September may be somewhat offset by the fact that students who call Niagara home may not leave to go to school elsewhere. “But, overall,” she says, “it will be a loss.” 

Excluding tuition, a typical Brock student spends $1,131 each month on expenses, the Brock Effect report estimates. Counting 19,000 students at Brock (and accounting for indirect economic impact), that amounts to $150 million that Brock students inject into the local economy per year. “We were really deliberately conservative in our estimates,” says Boggs. Looking forward, Boggs says, he’s “pretty confident” that, between the beginning of September and the end of November — many students leave the region early in December — the absence of students will cut $39 million in economic activity. 

Fearon says that Brock is weighing strategies to mitigate negative effects on the local economy. “We've taken steps, whether it's in maintaining our construction activities and our capital expenditure, maintaining to the best we can our employment scenario as well — all those kinds of items that dampens that larger impact that otherwise would be there,” he explains. “But what it says is, those numbers are significant. And that's what I would say would be my takeaway from Jeff [Boggs]'s number as well.”

Businesses in downtown St. Catharines, already struggling to adapt to the pandemic, will be hard hit by any loss of Brock student customers, says Tisha Polocko, executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association: “That'll be a huge impact. Even students that that are at the main campus [outside the downtown], quite a lot of them would live in the core area or close to it, utilizing things whether they're up at the main campus or not.” 

St. Catharine’s property owners also rely on students for income. Polocko notes that many storefronts have apartments above them and that the property owners make income from the residential and commercial tenants. Balsom shares her concern about property owners, adding that people who typically rent out spare rooms or basements to students will be affected, too. 

An absence of students would also pose problems for public-transit funding. The levies Brock students pay for transit passes collectively contribute $4.5 million toward transit annually. City councillor and Brock economist Joseph Kushner says that has a significant impact on St. Catharines’s budget, which is already facing a multimillion-dollar deficit. If enrolment numbers go down, that will mean less money for local transit. “They're all working together — the university, Niagara College, the city, the region — and they're trying to work through this, but, with COVID, it becomes very, very difficult,” Kushner says. “There's a lot of uncertainty. So, when you have the uncertainty, it's very difficult to plan.” Balsom and Polocko agree that, at this point, it’s hard to plan for what’s coming, since nobody knows for sure how many students will or won’t be in Niagara.

While the next 18 months could prove difficult, Balsom says, she’s hoping that there will be a long-term gain. “I think there's the opportunity to create new impactful modes of learning for [students] and possibly make higher education become more accessible to some people who maybe beforehand didn't think that that was accessible to them.” She adds that recessions have historically led to increased enrolment, meaning that the future may hold more students than ever before. 

Kushner says that’s a possibility. “If you're in a recessionary period, you may decide if you can't work, you will take courses. But, on the other hand, if you're not earning money, it becomes very difficult to take the courses.” He also says that, in addition to their economic benefits, students are socially important to St. Catharines. “Students certainly add vibrancy to the city. We are an aging city, like most communities, so having the students around is very positive.”

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