Center at UC Merced set to help developing economies

01/14/2014 7:14 PM

01/14/2014 10:06 PM

When UC Merced students return to class next week, at least 50 of them will be working to buck up Merced County’s economy.

Those students will be involved in the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which will be launched this spring with a $400,000, two-year grant through the University of California. Versions of the program are in full swing at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Davis.

What makes UC Merced unique is its focus on the San Joaquin Valley. The Berkeley and UCLA centers focus primarily on the economies of developing countries.

“There are some areas right here in the Valley that have sort of developing world characteristics in terms of water and income and the like,” said Dan Hirleman, dean of UC Merced’s school of engineering. “So, we’d like to have a center that kind of refocuses on what’s going on in the Central Valley.”

Hirleman said the Valley and developing countries could likely learn from one another.

The program will stretch across several areas of study, Hirleman said. His team of deans and faculty from engineering, economics and social sciences is working on some curriculum for the program, which will need approval later this year.

When the semester starts, students and faculty will be involved in a handful of projects, including one that loans small amounts of money to projects trying to be environmentally sound and sustainable, as well as another that studies whether accurate pollution information can be pulled from social media sites that use photos, such as Flickr.

Still another project is looking at boosting the county’s economy, and being able to identify success, Hirleman said. “What is really a prosperous community, and how would you measure that and what can you track?” he said.

The students involved in the program range from undergraduate to graduate, and from those enrolled in a course to those in clubs or organizations. Hirleman said the university’s students – of which 37 percent are from the Central Valley and 62 percent are first-generation college students – likely have the desire to give back to their communities.

Steve Roussos, interim director of the Blum Center, said the Merced County economic development project brings the county and Dignity Health, the parent company of Mercy Medical Center in Merced, together. Building Healthy Communities, a nonprofit that works to improve low-income areas of Merced, was also involved in the process.

The groups are looking at what Merced County needs to pull people out of poverty, Roussos said. “It’s just starting out, so that’s why it’s great for our students to get involved (now),” he said.

Merced has had an unemployment rate that hovers between 12 and 15 percent, and almost 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line drawn by the state.

Roussos said improvements in the economy have a ripple effect that benefit other aspects of a community, such as health.

Studying that, as well as doing research, calculating statistics and developing tools used to measure those statistics, among other tasks, will be part of the students’ roles in the program.

By all accounts, as the university grows the city will follow.

Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, said the collaboration among the disparate agencies allows the six cities to see economic development as a team effort.

“UC Merced as a major research university represents a major component, prospectively, of the economic development engine in Merced County, and in fact the entire region,” he said.

The original Blum Center at UC Berkeley was named after investment banker and UC Regent Richard C. Blum, who helped establish it with a donation.

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