Page 43 - BusinessWest July 20, 2020
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 Big E
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ing imaginatively for ways to generate revenue and close the budget gap.
“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season,” he explained, noting that the fair, despite its wealth of space, buildings, parking, and amenities, is still limited in what it can do. Put another way, it’s limited by what it can’t do, according the gov- ernor’s reopening plan — bring large numbers of people together in close proximity to one another.
Options, most of which involve keeping visitors in their cars and taking full advantage of the Big E’s sprawl- ing, 59-acre main parking lot, include everything from a drive-in theater
— a cost-benefit analysis is currently underway — to concerts to events like the recent ‘Taste of the Big E,’ a gather- ing that was eye-opening in a number of ways.
Indeed, the Taste, which involved visi- tors driving onto the Big E property
Bay Path
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initiative she calls “Let’s Come Togeth- er: Virtual Conversations with Presi- dent Doran.”
“I’m eager to get to know my col- leagues, and they’re eager to get to know me,” she said. “So these are con- versations we’re conducting virtually, almost one a day — so faculty and staff have an opportunity to sit and talk and learn about each other. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about our staff and faculty and what excites them about Bay Path, and, frankly, to learn about areas of strength and areas we need to improve.”
Course of Action
Doran was introduced to the Bay Path community on Feb. 27, just before the school sent its students home for the semester and essentially closed the campus. By the time of that announce- ment, it was already becoming clear that the approaching pandemic could alter the calendar and impact lives — but no one could really have predicted just how profoundly the landscape would change or how schools would be challenged by the virus.
As the story on page 17 reveals, schools have been spending the past several weeks carefully putting together reopening plans for the fall that incor- porate a host of different strategies.
For Bay Path, the assignment, while not easy by any stretch, was made less complicated by what could be called the school’s head start when it came to online programs, punctuated by the creation of the American Women’s College, a fully online school featur- ing graduate programs for men and women, nearly a decade ago.
and then staying in their cars to sample some of the food that would have been offered at this year’s fair, drew far more people than organizers were expecting, said Cassidy, adding that traffic was backed up the full length of Memorial Avenue. “People drove for hours to get here, and then they spent hours wait- ing in line to get in.”
Ultimately, the Taste helped con- vince Big E organizers that they simply couldn’t control the turnout for this year’s fair, said Cassidy, adding that the event showed that, if you open for the doors for something people want, they will come.
“When we saw the response to
the food show, we knew there was no way to control the number of people on the fairgrounds for the Big E,” he explained. “And knowing that really helped make the decision that staging the fair would not in the best interests of the people who came.”
But the Taste also provided ample evidence that different types of reve- nue-generating events can possibly be staged at the fairgrounds during the pandemic. These won’t generate any- thing approaching the income the fair
Bay Path’s plan, blueprinted with the help of a 75-member task force, calls for essentially cutting the number of students living on campus by half — down to roughly 200 — and conducting most courses, except those with some lab component, online. It’s a plan the school feels comfortable with because so many of its students were already learning remotely.
“It’s an environment where we’re making decisions with imperfect infor- mation — our environment is chang- ing on a weekly basis, if not on a daily basis,” Doran noted. “So we’re going
to be ready to pivot if we need to, but we feel strongly that we’ve got the right plan in place.”
This head start with remote learning has certainly caught the attention of others in academia, she added, noting those phone calls and e-mails seeking Bay Path’s assistance with online pro- gramming and inquiring about poten- tial partnership opportunities.
“We’ve had several schools reach out to us to ask if they can enroll their students in our courses or think about ways we can partner,” she told Busi- nessWest, noting that inquiries are coming from institutions across the country. “Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.
“They want to learn from what we’ve learned,” she went on. “So it’s exciting to be in that position of being able to share what we know, what we’ve learned about how to provide the best opportunities for students.”
And these phone calls represent
did, but they may help limit the flow of red ink in a year no one could have comprehended just five months ago.
A drive-in theater is among them, said Cassidy, noting that, decades ago, there was one just a half-mile or so down Memorial Avenue, and other one on Riverdale Street. Drive-ins have staged something approaching a comeback during the pandemic, but the startup costs are considerable — $90,000 to buy the camera to project the movies, for example.
“We’ve done a lot of due diligence to discover if there’s a way we could actu- ally turn a profit,” he noted. “That’s one of many things that are on the table.”
Another is the possibility of bring- ing carnival rides — which are not discussed anywhere in the reopening plan, according to Cassidy — to the fairgrounds. Others include finding new uses for the state buildings (or the grounds outside them), and staging concerts where attendees stay in their cars.
“There are some challenges to put- ting these on, and some limitations, but they’re a viable option for us,”
he noted. “People want to get out to
just one of the opportunities, a strange word to use in this climate, to arise from the pandemic, said Doran, adding that she chooses to look upon them in that light.
“We have an opportunity to rethink how we meet the needs of students whose ideals and thoughts around higher education are changing in the midst of everything that we’re dealing with,” she said. “So, just as the pan- demic is impacting every single person in terms of how they think about their own career and their own lives, our stu- dents are doing the same thing.”
Elaborating, she noted that fewer than 20% of those attending college today are having what would be called a traditional college experience, mean- ing a four-year school and living on campus.
“The other 80% attend a very differ- ent — and have a very different — col- lege experience,” she went on. “And one’s not better than the other, but I think there’s a new reality that higher education is embracing that’s focusing on the academic part of the experience, the part of the experience that enables students to have productive careers and move forward with their life goals and their life dreams.
“And that’s what Bay Path has always been — our mission is rooted in this idea that we want to provide career paths,” she continued, noting, again, that the school is well-positioned to embrace this new reality, as she called it, and this is reflected in enrollment numbers for the fall, which are quite solid at a time when many schools are struggling.
“We have — and this is another strength of Bay Path — a very diverse set of students,” she said. “We have stu-
events like this, and a lot of entertain- ers are dying to work; they’ve lost a lot of opportunities, and they need to work.”
Daunting Challenge
While optimistic that some revenue streams can be created in the midst of the pandemic, Cassidy is also realis- tic and knows that, collectively, these efforts will generate only a fraction of what a solid Big E would.
“My goal is to get this organization through this very difficult time and
run a Big E in 2021 that brings people together again,” said Cassidy, adding, again, that this will be a stern challenge not unlike that faced by a farmer who loses a year’s worth of crops.
Or a small fundraiser that loses its annual bazaar.
Those analogies might not seem appropriate for an organization, and an event, that brings 1.5 million people to the region every year. But for Cas- sidy, they work, and they illustrate just what he and his staff are up against. u
—George O’Brien
dents who are only online students, so they were never contemplating coming to campus, so we feel secure in those enrollments; we have graduate stu- dents, many of whom are online, so we feel secure in those enrollments; and our undergraduate enrollment is up for this fall in terms of deposits and com- mitments. We’re feeling very confident, and we’ve had a good response to our plan.”
Overall, the school is on solid finan- cial ground, Doran said, and in a good position to withstand the challenges created by the pandemic.
“The finances around higher edu- cation are always challenging,” she explained. “The pandemic has certain- ly raised another level of gauze around all this, because it’s hard to see through and see what the next steps are. But we have a number of task forces looking at the long-term aspects, and, overall, we see some opportunities.”
Bottom Line
Looking ahead ... well, Doran acknowledged it’s difficult to look very far ahead in the era of COVID-19.
Her immediate goals are to con- tinue building on the foundation that Leary has built and develop new growth opportunities for a school that has come a long way in the past quarter-century.
And rather than somehow slow or stifle those efforts, this convergence of crises that greeted her upon her arrival may, as she said, actually serve to accelerate that process.
As she noted, “this is our moment.” u George O’Brien can be reached at
[email protected]
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