Virtually everywhere I go in my travels around the country, people inevitably want to know one thing: How are things going at Liberty University? I founded the school in 1971 and today, with nearly 10,000 students on campus, 15,000 students in distance learning programs and more than 122,000 alumni, our students and graduates are impacting the nation (and the world) in many unique ways.

This week, Lynchburg’s daily newspaper, “The News & Advance,” ran an excellent editorial on the state of the university and how it is positively impacting the Lynchburg economy. I thought I would share it with my friends, so they can read this timely update on Liberty. We are very pleased that our friends at “The News & Advance” are helping to inform people about Liberty’s continuing student growth, campus expansions and the subsequent enhancement to the Lynchburg economy.

A growing LU benefits all

Liberty University is a major driver of the Central Virginia economy that’s only getter bigger and more important to the region. And finally regional leaders have acknowledged that fact.

LU, which began life just over three decades ago as a dream of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, will likely pass a major milestone this fall: 10,000 students on campus, securing its spot as the state’s largest private university. And with the passage of that milestone comes the need for the university to renew its conditional use permit operating agreement with the city of Lynchburg.

And by 2010, university officials estimate the number of students could top 13,000.

Like other localities in Virginia that are home to major institutions of higher education, Lynchburg City Council wants to be kept abreast of the developments on Candlers Mountain. A larger enrollment translates into demand for more retail opportunities, pressure on the area’s highway infrastructure, the need to study allocation of emergency services resources and more calls to the city’s inspections department as university construction ramps up. And, as the university grows, it becomes more of a key element in the long-range plans of the city itself.

For those and many other reasons, it’s encouraging that university and city officials will soon commence talks about LU’s future plans.

Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne put it quite succinctly: “Imagine twice as many students and twice as many staff of that campus right now. You kind of ask the obvious questions: Where are they going to go? Where are the students going to live?”

The accelerated growth of the university began with the acquisition of the old Ericsson building, which now houses Thomas Road Baptist Church, Liberty Christian Academy and university dining halls and recreation facilities. The 1 million square feet are quickly filling up as TRBC, LCA and LU continue to grow; late last year, LCA announced plans to construct a 44,000-square-foot addition.

LU is also moving to house more of its students on campus. Across U.S. 460 on Campus East, 30 dorms have been erected or are under construction, and there’s room for at least that many more.

Those students also need to get around campus and the city. The university is working on plans for a 1.2-mile perimeter highway to ease congestion on the current road network and to open new areas for future construction.

Already built is a pedestrian tunnel underneath U.S. 460 that connects Campus East to the main campus; planners are working on three more tunnels leading from the main campus to Wards Road, two for vehicles and one for pedestrians.

The city has stepped up to the plate as well with the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company providing campus bus service for which LU pays GLTC $75,000 a month. Currently, LU runs its own buses to shopping centers along Wards Road, but City Manager Payne suggested in a new recent article in The News & Advance that GLTC could cover those routes as well.

Just the other week, the university put an offer on the table for the donation of land in exchange for either Lynchburg or Campbell County constructing a publicly owned and managed civic center, of which LU would be the primary tenant.

The cultural life of the entire region could be greatly enhanced if the civic center dream becomes reality.

Employers throughout the region also benefit from a vibrant, growing Liberty University. The school of education turns out teachers who fill the public school classrooms of Central Virginia. Centra Health, one of the largest employers in the area, benefits immensely from LU’s undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. AREVA and Framatome already look to the university’s graduates to fill many of their jobs; LU’s proposed school of engineering will only strengthen the link between them.

Whether or not you like Jerry Falwell, his politics and his theology, it’s undeniable that the entire region has, and is, benefiting from Liberty University.

LU’s here to stay, and for Central Virginia, that’s good.

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