Walk the campus on what used to be Cody Road. Hear the bell on the clock tower chime. Search for a parking place. Walk into buildings that weren’t there the last time you visited. Try and find Woodruff Gym and while you’re at it keep looking for a parking place.
Catch a Columbus State University bus for downtown but prepare to stand, for unlike Metra, these buses have passengers. Work through a traffic jam of students on Broadway. Listen to young musicians jam on the sidewalk. Notice they’re learning and living where a few years ago wigs were being sold.
This is my way of gauging the impact that Columbus State University is having on a community that used to take it for granted.
The University of Georgia prefers numbers and dollar signs. It says CSU is worth $247 million to the local economy and accounts for 1,880 jobs.
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Those numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the full story of an institution that started in a hosiery mill and was once called Cody Road High School a disparaging term that showed what people felt about Columbus College.
Local graduates treated it as a stopover on their way to Athens, a place where they spent summers taking a few leisurely courses. Few saw it as a destination or dreamed of a diploma from a school that didn’t have a football team or a history.
People smirked when Cody Road became University Avenue and the old junior college became a university. No one noticed that a culture was being born, and they looked the other way when there was talk of a downtown campus.
Totally ignored was the impact the university had on an expanding middle class. More than 50 percent of our teachers, nurses and information technologists are CSU graduates, and it offers concerts, speakers and cultural opportunities that are valued by middle class residents.
Two years ago, Dr. Ben Blair was on the faculty at Mississippi State University and was considering a position in CSU’s Turner School of Business. He saw a community with values that he wanted for his children.
“We wanted an area that was more diverse and one that offered them opportunities,” said Blair, the director of the Butler Center for Business and Economic Research. And, to his surprise, he found a university “that was as sound academically as the one I left behind.”
Thirty-one institutions of higher learning had a $14.1 billion statewide impact in 2012, but no one can accurately measure the non-monetary benefits. Columbus State is fourth in the state university category, but its hometown value is greater because it is the only university in our part of Georgia.
And it will never again be known as Cody Road High.