The long-awaited university campus planned for downtown Tauranga is one step closer after Tauranga Energy Consumer Trust (TECT) announced its donation of $15 million in funding on Thursday.

The estimated cost of the project is $67.1 million and TECT’s donation represents the completion of this funding raise. Subject to ongoing negotiations and no doubt numerous resource consent hearings, we are looking at the construction of stage one of a purpose-built campus by 2016, and stage two would see a second building by 2022.

Draft Design of new Tauranga University campus

Draft Design of new Tauranga University campus

It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of the new campus to the region’s rapidly growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. As I blogged back in April, Can Tauranga Replicate Boulder? – Part 3 (The Role of a University) , a University can provide an entrepreneurial ecosystem with the key ingredients for long-term sustainability. They generate graduates, professors, research labs, technology transfer offices and frequently, entrepreneurship programs. Of all of these, I believe that students are the most significant. They provide new and fresh thinking and on graduation can very rapidly contribute to the local start-up community. It explains also why it is so important for the local start-up community to engage very directly with the University, its programs, its staff and its students. It will become a key source of the most important resource that this community requires: people.

One of the key objectives of the new campus curriculum is to provide a focus on the economic and development needs of the Bay of Plenty. The campus is aimed at attracting more young people, particularly Maori, into tertiary education. Wharf42 applauds this intent. However to really build on the opportunity that the new campus offers, we need to look more deeply at just how this intent maps against reality.

According to a June Benefit Cost Analysis Report commissioned by The Bay of Plenty Tertiary Education Partnership, a tertiary campus in downtown Tauranga will generate benefits of $188 million over the next 20 years .I am not sure where this number comes from. If it only generates benefits of $188 million to the region over the next 20 years, then in my view, the implementation will represent abject failure.

20 years should (and will) allow Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty to transform its economy to reflect the increased research, innovation and technology capabilities that such a campus will bring. The recent appearance of numerous co-working spaces in the city, the imminent opening of the new Basestation complex on Durham Street and the announcement earlier this month by Callaghan Innovation that WNT Ventures was to be one of just three New Zealand tech-focused incubators is evidence of the rapid transformation currently underway. The advent of the CBD-located campus will only accelerate this process.

In Boulder, Colorado, it has taken 10 – 15 years to transform its economy into one of the highest paid, per capita, cities in the US. As well as having a very strong innovative and technology based business sector, it is also, according to Forbes Magazine, the ‘Happiest’ City in the US. In short, the work, life balance is good. Tauranga can replicate this.

Over the coming months, Wharf42 will be proactive in terms of its engagement with the University. We are keen to see courses that not only attract more local students into tertiary education, but also courses that will add value and longer term sustainability to the startup and innovative ecosystem that is taking shape in the city and the region.

It is down to the entrepreneurs in this rapidly emerging ecosystem to lead this engagement. As Brad Feld wrote in his work; Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City’, it is the entrepreneurs who lead.

Tauranga and the wider Bay of Plenty entrepreneurial community now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to provide input into a project that has the capacity to accelerate the transformation not only of the city’s economic future, but more importantly the lives of everyone who lives here. We can learn from the mistakes of others. Ours is a green field site.

It’s time to make it happen.

You can follow Wharf42 on Twitter at @Wharf42HQ