By Mary Alice Murphy
Before the speaker, Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard, was introduced, Chamber President Scott Terry recognized Trent and Diane Petty for their work last year in keeping the chamber going, when there was no staff.
Chamber Board member Dave Thomas of WNM Communications introduced Shepard, who is also a chamber board member.
The first thing Shepard did was to recognize five of his staff members, who were in attendance.
"I can say complimentary things about just about everybody in the room," Shepard said. "I don't know everyone, but after speaking to them, I'm sure I could find something complimentary to say.
"When I was interviewed for the Western presidency, I heard a lot of talk about the divide between the university and the community," Shepard continued. "I'm working on it, and I'm working on the economic development role of the university and the chamber."
He said he came to Silver City from an environment, which had been only a swamp and people had to build the infrastructure for a university up from the filled-in swamp.
"Florida is hot and humid, but investors got together to build a Ritz Carlton on the beach and swampland in Naples, Florida," Shepard said. "Once Ritz corporate planes started to fly into the little airport, it had to be expanded. More billionaires came to stay at the hotel, and soon they built a hospital and then the university. We already have the hospital and the university."
He also told about a resort that was built in Page, Arizona, with a starting rate of $1,100 a night to $7,100 a night. "I predict about 30 years from now, Page will expand, with investing and building."
"Here we are as a community looking at our assets—a decent airport, a hospital, a university, and we have excellent organizations like the Mimbres Region Arts Council and Community Concerts, which bring in shows, and the Arts and Cultural District, which brings in tourism," Shepard said.
He said the NBA teams either control their own destiny to get into the playoffs by winning games or they back into them by other teams losing games.
"Which do we want to be?" Shepard asked. "How does it tie into the university? I feel I have a personal, as well as a professional interest, in building the community."
He said the recently approved master plan is looking at five years, 10 years and 20 years out.
"We are renovating Light Hall, which will be finished in August or September," Shepard said. "We have the capability of a single screen theater and a stage for small performances. It is not in my best interests to send students to Deming to see movies. We want to join an independent theater group for first-run movies. We are building from the academic and the community point of view.
"We had a swimming pool, but it was leaking 9,000 gallons of water a day," he continued. "We have 10,000 square feet, so we got approval for a recreation center. We will have two 25-meter lanes, and the deep end will be filled to 5 feet or less. That will give us 2,700 square feet of surface water, which means we can have attendants, rather than lifeguards. That way we can have great hours. The area will be surrounded by glass. The wall behind that will be a fitness center, and we will refurbish the locker room."
He said the glass is retractable and the patio is a social space. "We will have outdoor lighted basketball and sand volleyball courts. Sand volleyball is a NCAA sport for men and women. We are moving toward getting back baseball. We're doing all that now because for the fitness center, the students said they would give $10 a credit hour toward the project. Wells Fargo is loaning us the money."
Shepard continued describing the plan. "The empty lot is where the Cooler used to be. We want to build a three-story building, with a food court on the first story; areas for clubs and organizations on the second floor and the third floor will be a ballroom. We have finished Phase 1 and 2 of the Mustang Village housing, which are four bedroom and two bath units. The next phase, Building C, to be complete by fall, will be four bedrooms, with each having its own bathroom. "
He said the university is also having conversations with the town, which wants to repave College Avenue. "We want it to be good for biking, skateboarding and walking. I had lunch at Diane's the other day. I was going to drive, but decided to walk. It took me seven minutes. We want to encourage pedestrian traffic."
Other conversations the university is having are around renewable energy, with maybe some photovoltaic systems and even maybe some wind energy.
"We've adjusted our budget by $4.2 million—a 15 percent reduction," Shepard said. "We did it with minimal layoffs and primarily attrition. I compliment the staff and faculty. We are not sacrificing quality. We at the Board of Regents meeting today raised tuition 6 percent. The students agreed to it after a public hearing. Fees are also increasing, with an impact overall of a 13 percent increase.
"We are also asking for a fee for infrastructure," Shepard said. "We need sidewalks from the new housing, as well as parking. Students have also agreed for $2.50 an hour to provide tutoring to other students. Students are putting money where their mouth is."
He said the upcoming year would be tough, and the university will look at program prioritization. "We used to receive from the state $800 per student, but now it's $4.75 per student with the new funding formula. In 2011 the university had grown, but the funding was based on the prior year. We are starting with a $5 million deficit. The university would rather be excellent at 40 programs than mediocre at 60, so we will be cutting some programs. We will take the resources we have and maximize them."
Shepard also noted the Internet has become "disruptive. Those who have shifted models are thriving. Advertising doesn't work any more. "
"We, the university, have been so reliant on state money," Shepard said. "That needs to change. We will be the place to go to as the place to be."
Sue Sherman, area resident, asked what the university was doing with courses online.
"Thirty percent to 40 percent of our courses are now online," Shepard said. "In the fall the MBA program will be completely online."
Denise Yeilding, trustee and owner of the Copper Manor Motel, Red Barn Steakhouse and Watering Hole and the Drifter Motel and Restaurant, said she has kids in college. "They find popular convenience points useful so they can eat in town or go to a movie. I put $400 in their accounts and they can eat where they wish."
"This year we are starting to roll out a system similar to that," Shepard said. "Last year, the only choice was a meal plan. Over the next two to three years, we want to ask business owners to put in a reader for a student card that will allow the student to purchase food or a movie. Different cards have different opportunities, but the card we're implementing should go through the reader you have."
"Don't forget about the GO (general obligation) bond," Shepard's administrative assistant, Julie Morales said.
"Voters will have the chance to vote on the bond in the November election," Shepard said. "In 2012, it was approved, and it provided the money for Light Hall. This year, in 2014, we have a higher amount proportionally than other schools. With the $6 million, we can finish Light Hall's classrooms, put HVAC and fire suppression in the museum, and work on Harlan Hall. It benefits the students and brings construction jobs."
A female speaker said she was curious how the university would bring in younger, more traditional students.
"It's a challenge," Shepard agreed. "We retain only one out of two freshman students. I'm hoping the recreation center and the movie theater will help. We will have a La Santa Cecilia concert on June 20. The Great Race last weekend brought a lot of participation. We have more opportunities and potential here than anywhere. We have the community to create opportunities for students.
"We need everyone to think positively," Shepard said. "The No. 1 thing is to speak positively about the community and support local businesses. The money stays here and comes back to us. Become an active participant in organizations. Volunteer and give back."
Terry said the chamber would try to create a game day experience, with competitions, bankers grilling burgers and giving back to the community.
"With the outdoor lights we will have, I would like to encourage night games in September and October on the basketball and volleyball courts," Shepard said. "At 6 p.m., it will still be nice. We are looking at tearing down Eckles Hall and making a green space."
Someone asked where to find the sports schedule.
"Our new website is up and running," Shepard said. "We're looking at a marquee sign near Watts Hall, where we can put university and other events on it."
Sherman commented that the other day, she was driving down Bullard and a university team was running down the sidewalks. "It was fantastic to see their energy. It brought their presence of youth downtown."
Terry said the chamber and the Arts and Cultural District are working together on a booth at the Governor's Conference on Tourism. "We want to continue working together."
Morales reminded everyone that Commencement would take place May 16, with astronaut and Silver City native Harrison Schmitt as the speaker.
Terry said for the next month's meeting the chamber would try a new location for its lunch, "so watch your email."