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Cyclists ride up Higgins Avenue near Broadway Street during BIKEapalooza in this July 2016 file photo. Downtown business leaders are hoping to convince more prospective college students to choose the University of Montana by welcoming them when they tour campus.

Could a trip down the vibrant Higgins Avenue for some shopping and a meal convince a prospective college student to choose Missoula over, say, Bozeman?

The University of Montana’s enrollment has dropped by roughly a quarter since 2011, which has been bad not only for the institution but also for the local economy. A new partnership, spearheaded by UM’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, is trying to use the allure and charm of the city’s historic and thriving downtown as a way to convince prospective students to enroll in college here. They have enlisted the help of the Missoula Downtown Association, which represents hundreds of local businesses.

The idea was sparked by Missoula City Council member Gwen Jones, who recently took her son on a tour of the University of Iowa’s campus. There, she learned that every prospective student gets a discount of sometimes up to 15 percent at local businesses in the downtown area of Iowa City.

“Most campuses don’t have a location near an awesome downtown like we do,” Jones said at a meeting about the collaboration on Thursday. “So when the University of Iowa offered us a 15 percent discount, it opens the door. We said, ‘why don’t we go check out some of these places?’ I don’t know why, but that 15 percent discount made us say ‘let’s go spend money’ even though we weren’t planning to before.”

Jones said the final factor in her son’s decision was finding a good coffee shop where he would like to spend time studying. She feels like there's probably more students like her son who weigh not only the campus and academics but also the surrounding town's character. And one thing Missoula's not lacking is character.

The overarching theme of Thursday’s meeting was to crystallize the idea that it would be mutually beneficial for both downtown businesses and UM as a whole to get prospective students and their families into local restaurants and shops.

For Jones and other parents, it’s common knowledge that a “gut feeling” of whether they like a city plays a huge role in a teenager’s decision to choose a particular college.

“It’s almost as important as academics for a prospective student,” explained Devin Carpenter, UM’s associate director of orientation. “People want to envision themselves studying somewhere or having a birthday party somewhere or having someplace to go on the weekends.”

Ed Wetherbee, a local developer who, with his wife Leslie, is creating the Old Sawmill District not far from campus that includes a new student housing complex, said UM needs to do a better job at recruitment. He and his wife have four boys, and they recently toured colleges.

“At Tulane, the alumni association was all over us before we even went to the school,” he said. “At UM, the tour guide on Saturday didn’t even show up.”

Wetherbee said teenagers go from being looked at as leaders their senior year of high school to feeling insecure during their freshman year of college.

“I know they make decisions on a place to go to school based on look and comfort level,” he said.

Many local business leaders said they would like to see prospective families given lanyards that give discounts at downtown shops, so locals can recognize when they come in and ask if they have any questions and make them feel welcome. Other business leaders want to see some sort of smartphone app that gives discounts and acts as a tour guide.

Carpenter said there are many instances where a family has a tour of campus scheduled on a Friday, but on the Thursday night when they are staying at their hotel they have nothing scheduled. That’s the time, he said, that the family should be downtown checking out Missoula’s flavor or getting discounts for the Downtown ToNight live music and food trucks at Caras Park.

Barb Neilan, the executive director of Destination Missoula, the local conventions and visitors bureau, said there is an opportunity to do more to train people to be well-versed in all Missoula has to offer. Right now, many hospitality workers in town participate in those workshops, but baristas in downtown coffee shops could participate as well. Others suggested the possibility of handing prospective students a Downtown Gift Card that works at over 200 businesses, but Carpenter said a funding source would have to be secured for that.

He was just brainstorming, but the first idea Carpenter came up with was to call the lanyards “Very Important Grizzly” cards so prospective students felt special.

“There are a lot of questions, like is it a blanket discount and how do business owners opt in and out and is it six months or a year and what does the implementation look like,” he said. “We are hoping to implement a trial run for Summer Orientation and Griz Night, which are June 20-22 and July 12-13.”

The UM Undergraduate Admissions office is planning on scheduling more meetings with local business leaders in the future to discuss the project. 

Linda McCarthy, the executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association, said it's important for the downtown business community and UM to have a good working relationship.

"Enrollment impacts our downtown," she said. "And our downtown community wants to help them be successful by selling our community. It's important for us to be at the table together helping them to do that."

McCarthy said there are examples far and wide of college towns using their surrounding community to boost enrollment.

"Prospective students are also looking at the community and so are their parents," she said. "Put yourself in a parents' shoes. You are going to want to know that your daughter is in a town that's safe and clean and welcoming and has all the amenities that he or she might need. It's important."

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