Last updated on March 11th, 2020 at 03:27 pm
Lakeland University is weighing options for a potential development on 80 acres of farmland at its rural Sheboygan County campus that could create job opportunities for its students.
Lakeland officials said options for the university-owned property, which is located on the southwest portion of campus, could include developing a business park or an innovation center, or putting the land up for sale to gauge interest from other developers.
Lakeland is working with Milwaukee-based GRAEF-USA Inc. on the potential development.
“A business park would be ideal,” said Scott Niederjohn, dean of Lakeland’s School of Business and Entrepreneurship. “What we have to offer is available and inexpensive land, and a steady stream of labor force – students – that are always going to be here and always going to be looking for work.”
There is no shortage of possibilities for the property at this point, Niederjohn said.
“There are a lot of ideas,” he said. “It could be (a business) leases land from us or a few firms together co-brand something and do something together, like an innovation operation. We’re exploring those ideas.”
In particular, Niederjohn said, the university is looking for partners for whom its campus’s rural location is an asset.
“There are some firms and businesses we’ve talked to that (see) there is some advantage to not being downtown in a big city,” he said.
The university is looking to create a new source of jobs as it continues to build its cooperative education program. The co-op program, now in its third year, places students in jobs with area companies to gain 12 to 18 months of professional work experience and earn wages to defray their tuition costs.
Currently, about 85 partners – including area companies, such as Johnsonville Sausage LLC, Bemis Manufacturing Co. and Acuity, along with nonprofit organizations and school districts – employ Lakeland students as part of the co-op.
The program, which has grown each year since its pilot in 2017, has been a win-win for the university and area employers as they struggle to find labor in the low-unemployment environment, president David Black said. But, he said, the university needs to prepare for when the economy takes a downturn and jobs become less plentiful.
He said he doesn’t want students competing for jobs that Sheboygan County residents would otherwise fill, but the university needs to be able to provide the co-op program regardless of economic conditions.
“We’re trying to explore the development of our own asset, our land, into jobs,” Black said. “That would add a whole important dimension of security. It would ensure that the promise we’ve made is one we can keep.”
The co-op program has become a differentiator for Lakeland among other small, private, liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, as the vast majority of its incoming students are enrolling in the program, university officials said. If students follow the university’s financial advising, they can graduate with little to no debt.