A campus revitalizes Phoenix's west side

Aug 07, 2012

Grand Canyon University (GCU) had been serving students in Phoenix since 1951. But in 2004 GCU, a private, nonprofit university faced a crisis: it was $20 million in debt and about to close its doors after more than half a century.

Unable to find donors, GCU came up with a new path forward. It became a for-profit institution, developed a business plan, and raised money from investors. Today GCU is financially healthy, providing a low-cost, high-quality education for 7,000 students on its Phoenix campus and for another 40,000 students through its online course offerings.

The most visible sign of GCU’s renaissance is its rapidly expanding campus. Over the past eight years, the university has invested nearly $240 million to build five new dorms, new classroom buildings, a 5,000-seat arena, a new athletic complex, and a new parking garage.

To build this new campus, however, GCU had to overcome a significant obstacle: it needed to take ownership of the land on the west side of Phoenix, which it had been leasing throughout the expansion. That's when Bank of America stepped in.

“Without the financial resources that Bank of America provided, none of this really would have been possible,” says Stan Meyer, GCU’s chief operating officer. “Without ownership of the land itself, the dormitories we built, the arena, the classroom buildings, all the things we’ve done to provide the infrastructure to grow the student body to 7,000 students, would not have been possible without actually owning the land.”

Bank of America helped finance the purchase of the land in 2008, and soon GCU’s vision for an expanded campus was becoming a reality. The expanded campus brought benefits not just to the university, but to the surrounding community on the west side of Phoenix. For starters, GCU has grown from 500 employees to 2,500 in the last five years. The campus construction has also created much-needed jobs for local residents. For the west side, GCU has provided an important economic boost.

“This is a lower income area,” says Norm Butler, a commercial banking executive at Bank of America, describing the west side. “You look from what the campus used to be to now; you’ve got a very robust campus. You have 5,000 people living here. The neighborhood can see a beautiful arena. I have to imagine this neighborhood is proud of this campus.”

Brian Mueller, GCU’s CEO, says the university has worked hard to become a part of and give back to the community, offering free courses in English as a second language, providing help to needy families around the holidays, and hosting a neighborhood festival at Halloween. That makes sense, since the west side is home to so many people who fit the GCU mold: “low-income, high-potential” students, as Mueller puts it. These students, many of whom will be the first in their families to go to college, are looking for an affordable education that can help them advance their careers.

“At Grand Canyon University, we believe we need to be an integrated and important part of the community that we live in,” says Mueller. “We’re starting to be seen as a major economic engine for the west side of Phoenix, and so to have a partner like Bank of America support us in trying to revitalize this part of the city, that’s an important partnership and something that could be very beneficial to everyone involved.”

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