The figures describing the University of Rochester can seem staggering.
- $1.2 billion in annual payroll for 30,800 employees.
- $3.2 billion total pumped into the economy in the form of that payroll plus the wages of people whose jobs depend on UR business or the spending of its employees in one year.
- $327.9 million in capital investment in 2017 alone.
- The largest private employer in all of Upstate New York, and the fifth largest for the entire state.
- $342 million in research grants in 2017.
In one very large nutshell, those figures spell out the economic impact of the University of Rochester, documented in a biennial economic report compiled by the Center for Governmental Research and released this week.
Besides many impressive numbers, the report describes a community enriched by a thriving research university with a regional medical center. It describes a medical system that has grown organically and through acquisitions, reaching into the Southern Tier. It draws a picture of an active research community, including the federally funded Laboratory for Laser Energetics that attracts scientists from around the world to visit, study and, yes, spend money.
UR has grown so much, in fact, that some of that growth was either left out of the report (acquisition of St. James Hospital in Hornell, for instance, because it occurred in 2018) or averaged out to avoid overstating its impact. The report’s authors chose to average capital investments over five years rather than taking the banner year of 2017 at face value because it was so much higher than previous years.
The numbers may come as a surprise for Rochester residents used to having UR as a backdrop for life in the Flower City.
“Sometimes we overlook the most significant economic development engines in our own backyard,” said Anne M. Kress, president of Monroe Community College and co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. The report really shows that higher education and medicine are the region’s key economic drivers, she noted.
UR President Richard Feldman said he was surprised to see the amount of student spending, which CGR estimated at more than $99 million last year. “That was just a bigger number than I realized,” Feldman said. It might not come as a surprise to anyone who happens to be in the Henrietta Target store, however, the week that freshmen and foreign students arrive for the fall semester.
In some instances, though, Feldman noted that UR’s greatest impact is in the dollars it draws from elsewhere. Those dollars can come in the form of major federal grants, or of medical insurance payments from the out-of-staters who come to Rochester for a heart or liver transplant or cancer treatments.
Peter G. Robinson, vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Rochester Medical Center, added, “If you look at Upstate New York and the other cities, I think the University of Rochester stands uniquely as a major draw and mecca for health care.” While Buffalo’s Roswell Center for cancer also has a far-reaching reputation, Robinson noted that UR’s Golisano Center is substantially larger.
If URMC were to go away tomorrow, the report noted, people would still go to other local hospitals to have babies or fix broken limbs. But the influx of economic activity around UR’s medical specialties such as liver transplants, autism research and others would also go away.
Dollars don’t just flow into the community for UR’s medical services, as this week’s jazz events surrounding UR’s Eastman School of Music will attest.
“To have this level of medical care is extraordinary,” Kress said, but overall quality of life is elevated because of UR. “Memorial Art Gallery or Eastman—the level of cultural life that’s here is magnified exponentially because of the University of Rochester,” she said.
Having the university here simply makes Rochester a more attractive community, several observers said.
“The university’s economic impact is also in our people and what they bring, qualitatively as well as quantitatively,” Robinson said. “We are attracting to the community some of the best and the brightest in the country.”
Some of UR’s economic impact is quite purposeful, from its building of student housing in Rochester’ 19th Ward, across the Genesee River from the River Campus; to its relocation of a business incubator, NextCorps, to downtown; to the expansion of its geographic footprint with medical services and hospital systems.
Of the last, Feldman said, “That enables us to serve the population effectively.” A patient entering one of UR’s affiliated hospitals can receive all the services available in Rochester, but less expensively than if each hospital had to try to mount those services on its own.
Robinson said the UR health system has done some rebranding so patients understand where their medical services come from.
“The Finger Lakes region is our home. You’re going to see us all over the Finger Lakes,” Robinson said.
The report begs the question of whether UR can sustain the growth it has seen over the last decade. Through both acquisition and organic growth, it added 9,000 jobs over the last five years.
CGR Data Analyst Michael Silva, who wrote the report, said, “We saw the UR grow, but it was shocking how much they grew. Nine thousand jobs—that’s a lot of jobs to add to the area.”
Feldman said the growth is likely to continue, but it’s unclear for how long. Robinson predicted that UR will have another year for building that tops 2017 in the next five years, even as capital investments are more subject to fluctuation than other trends.
“They will continue to be the No. 1 factor in our economy,” said Vincent Esposito, regional director of Empire State Development. But even so, he said the local economy needs both to diversify beyond “traditional ‘eds and meds’” and to better leverage the technology and expertise UR has to develop other sectors of the economy such as data science and photonics and imaging.
You won’t get any argument on that from UR.
“We know that we have an impact on the region,” said Feldman. “It’s in our mutual interest for the region to thrive as well as for us to thrive.”
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