WEST PLAINS, Mo. – Throughout the years, Missouri State University-West Plains has partnered with the City of West Plains on a variety of projects and initiatives, but none have proved quite so successful as the agreement that allows the college’s University/Community Programs (U/CP) Department to offer a variety of business, cultural and wellness programs at the city-owned West Plains Civic Center.
This fall marks the 20th year of that agreement, and by all accounts, it has benefitted the city, the university and area residents alike.
“This partnership has been really great for all concerned,” West Plains Mayor Jack Pahlmann said. “It’s representative of how the city and the university can work hand-in-hand to do something that betters the community.”
U/CP Department Director Brenda Polyard agreed. “If it weren’t for the wonderful relationship we have with the city, the West Plains Civic Center board and the civic center staff over the years, we would not have been as successful at developing programs that positively impact the region,” she said.
MUTUAL NEED BIRTHS A NEW DEPARTMENT
The agreement grew out of a mutual need by both parties. City leaders had constructed the civic center to serve as a regional venue for conventions, trade shows, concerts, theatrical performances, athletic events and wellness opportunities for area residents, but they needed funds and staff to fully utilize the 45,000-plus-square-foot facility.
The university, meanwhile, in the middle of one if its most significant expansion periods, needed additional facilities to offer new classes and programs to its growing student body, but securing state funding for new buildings to house these programs was proving difficult.
That’s when city and university leaders came together to see if they could help each other. University officials offered to provide staff and funding needed to expand programming at the civic center for students and community members. A request by the university for $360,000 in state appropriations to develop the U/CP Department was approved by the state legislature and the governor in summer 1998, then the university’s Board of Governors and the West Plains City Council approved the cooperative agreement, giving birth to the partnership that October.
At the time, Fred F. Marty, chancellor of Missouri State-West Plains, said the goal of the agreement was to “serve people of all ages and backgrounds, meet the ongoing emerging needs of the region’s businesses and industries, meet the educational needs of area citizens, and maximize the efficient use of the civic center for the benefit of residents and students.”
That’s exactly what happened when the U/CP Department began operations on the second floor of the civic center. A small business center, now known as the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), was established to improve the economic health of the university’s seven-county primary service area through counseling, training, and a variety of products and services. A full slate of theater and events programming was developed to provide cultural and educational opportunities for the region. And, U/CP staff began managing the civic center’s indoor collegiate-sized pool and fitness center, eventually providing additional exercise equipment.
Since it began, the U/CP Department has hosted more than 500 theater events attended by 225,000-plus patrons; had more than 870,000 patrons visit the pool and fitness center while averaging 280 annual memberships; and served over 800 business clients resulting in the creation of more than 280 new jobs and the retention of 720 others. In addition, SBTDC clients have received over $12 million in loans and investments as a result of assistance provided by its staff.
“Over the years, University/Community Programs has made a positive impact on the quality of life for the citizens of the region,” Polyard said. “Whether it be in personal or professional growth, the programs we’ve offered have been enjoyed by people of all ages and interests.
“Besides the wellness benefits of the pool and fitness center and the economic benefit of the services offered through the SBTDC, our theater and events programming has given thousands of area residents the opportunity to experience the talents of a wide variety of artists and performers from all areas of the globe,” she added.
These include a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir; the National Audio Theatre Festival; a visit by the Moving Wall exhibit, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program; stage productions by Opera Viva! and the Imaginary Theatre Company of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre; and exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution.
This is in addition to such annual events as the February Film Series, which has featured numerous Academy Award-winning films and documentaries; Art Around Town, which celebrates the talents of young artists from area school districts; and the summer educational program for area fourth through eighth graders, Kids’ College.
PRAISES FROM PATRONS
One area resident who has been to most, if not all, of the theater and events programs is Sandy Evans, West Plains, who attends with family members, friends or on her own. “I just enjoy going,” she explained. “There’s always such a wide variety of programs offered. They’re all different, and they’re all entertaining. There’s really something for everyone.”
The U/CP department plays a vital role in the community with its theater and events programming, she added. “Children in our area are not always exposed to different types of entertainment. It’s really important to show them what’s out there. Who knows what child in the crowd you’re influencing!”
And, what have been her favorite events? “The one-man traveling show on Mark Twain. It was so good. And, the Vienna Boys Choir,” she said.
Nina Stafford and her husband, Connie, have been using the civic center’s pool and fitness facilities since 1999, a couple of years after moving to West Plains from the St. Charles/O’Fallon area.
“We started back when (the fitness center) was in the Walnut Room with just two treadmills,” the 75-year-young fitness enthusiast said while pointing out her husband is 80. “The college really expanded the amenities, and it’s very comparable to what we used to attend in St. Charles. They have just about everything you would find in a fitness center, and (Aquatics and Wellness Coordinator) Keri Elrod is super. We really enjoy her.
“We go about three days a week in the middle of the afternoon,” she added. “We have a family membership, and the cost is very reasonable. We can’t say enough about it.”
Larissa Osborne said she found the SBTDC staff “knowledgeable and friendly” when she sought their help to open her business, Larissa’s Skincare Boutique in West Plains. “Being a first-time business owner, I had lots of questions, and (SBTDC Coordinator) Bronwen Madden has been able to answer them or find the answer for me,” Osborne said. “I am very thankful that I found the SBTDC when I did. Knowing that they are there when I need them gives me peace of mind.”
Former Missouri State-West Plains student and Student Government Association (SGA) President Tony Ary said the programs provided by the U/CP Department give students a “true college experience.” As a member of the Grizzly Cheer Team, training in the fitness center was required, he explained, but having access to the pool and fitness center through U/CP’s management of the facility made it easy to build his training around his schedule.
The theater and events programming, he added, gives students more opportunities to participate in activities on campus. “The events that came in when I was there were so diverse. They met the interests of many people and allowed students to see something different,” he explained. “The film series always caught a lot of different interests, but it also brought people together.”
Ary’s favorite event was the performance by illusionist Joel Meyers in August 2012. “He spent time on campus throughout the day visiting with students, then he put on a great show at the theater that evening,” Ary said. “Right after he visited West Plains, he became very popular.”
Many of the theater and events programs provided by U/CP are funded in part through the university’s Student Activities Fee, a decision that Ary said he was proud to support during his tenure as SGA president.
“We realized how important it was to have these events,” he explained. “I wanted the students to have more than a drive-to-campus-and-go-to-class experience. It should be a place where students can grow and develop, and they can do that with these events.”
Unfortunately, funding from the Student Activities Fee wasn’t enough to offset the budget cuts created by the reduction in state appropriations for the coming academic year, Polyard said.
“With the cuts, we’re currently gapping the vacant theater and events coordinator position, and due to the cuts and enrollment decline, we had to make the difficult decision to no longer host Kids’ College and scale back the number of theater programs we’re going to offer,” she explained.
Despite the funding challenges, Polyard said the proverbial “show will go on” at U/CP, and staff members will do their best to continue providing quality programs and services to its many clients and patrons.
“It may not be easy, but we are committed to serving the campus community and the community at large with events and services that will enrich their lives,” she said.
For more information about the U/CP Department and its programs and services, call 417-255-7966 or visit www.wp.missouristate.edu/ucp.