Monday, March 1, 2010

Colleges as Partners in the Commercial District Revitalization Effort

Colleges and Universities are natural partners in commercial district revitalization efforts. These institutions recognize that student attendance is driven not only by academics, but also by the community in which the college is located. As students compare colleges and make decisions as to where they want to spend four years of their lives - where the college is located can sometimes play a critical role in the decision making process.

Some colleges get this. As a student at Wesleyan University in the late 90's (and an intern at the City Planning Office leading the Main Street application effort), I saw first hand how University participation made a real difference in the downtown revitalization effort. Then Mayor Maria Madsen Holzberg approached Wesleyan and asked the University to contribute $10,000/year over the course of three years in support of its downtown development initiatives. Wesleyan's participation was then leveraged to get six other community partners, including local banks, to contribute the same. This funding was used to demonstrate to the State Main Street program that Middletown was prepared to fund a district manager and was ready to receive the technical assistance being provided by the National Main Street program as part of the competitive application process. While Middletown is no longer a Main Street program (having graduated to become a Business Improvement District), the downtown economy has blossomed, with a movie theatre, a small hotel, and other retail and dining establishments. The University clearly saw a significant return on its investment.

Union College is another college that has recognized the importance of an attractive and pleasant commercial district as a selling point for the school (See a recent NY Times Article "Union College Admits That It's in Schenectady"). The improvements in downtown are now a selling point to prospective students, whereas in the past, the school took pains to direct visiting prospective students around the downtown rather than through it.

Here in New York, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn is another great example of an institution participating in the revitalization of the local commercial district. Myrtle Avenue is among the more successful Business Improvement District's in the City, and the President of Pratt is an active participant in the BID's strategic decision making efforts. The school recently committed to building a new facility that faces Myrtle Avenue - rather than away from it - because they recognize the way in which their facilities and students contribute to the growing vitality of the district.

I recently did some work with the New Rochelle Business Improvement District - and here again I found an example of a local college, Monroe College, participating in the BID's district improvement efforts by sitting on the Board, sponsoring events and finding ways to get students more engaged with downtown - including potentially engaging students from the newly created culinary school in a downtown restaurant or helping them open or manage food service establishments downtown.

There are a myriad of other examples out there - including the University of Pennsylvania and Trinity College in Connecticut - that have given generously of their resources (not just money) to help the local commercial district. Really, the only limit to the participation of the local college or university is your imagination...

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