Sustaining a Town-Gown Relationship

Sustaining a Town-Gown Relationship

How St. Lawrence University has nurtured and sustained a relationship with its hometown of Canton, N.Y.

I have loved St. Lawrence University and the Canton community from the very first time I saw it in the fall of 1960 when I visited as a prospective student. The university, located in the heart of New York state, owes its founding in 1856 to community leaders who, in collaboration with the Universalist Church, "lit a candle in the wilderness that will never be extinguished." The university and the Canton community have, as a result, an interdependent relationship that is like--but also very different from--the typical "town-gown" pairing.

Today the university is among St. Lawrence County's largest employers, and we realize that critical to our success as a university is a healthy, attractive, and vital town of Canton with excellent K-12 schools, high-quality health care, attractive housing, affordable day care, and a growing tax base.

'Our neighbors view us as a true partner and not the proverbial 900-pound gorilla.'

We are committed to working closely with Canton's business and government leaders to strengthen our community in strategic and sustainable ways. Thankfully, because of our good work together, our neighbors view us as a true partner and not the proverbial 900-pound gorilla. They have seen how we have added financial resources and an improved quality of life to the community.

In 1997, St. Lawrence University's Board of Trustees dedicated $1 million to our first strategic and sustainable community effort, known as the Canton Initiative. Four years later, the board voted to add another $1 million to this initiative.

The goals of the ongoing initiative are:

To invest in and stimulate others to invest in properties within a defined enterprise zone so as to improve the physical attractiveness of the zone and promote its economic enhancement.

To increase directly the tax base of the village and town of Canton through investment, development, and/or divestiture of tax-exempt university property.

To establish and maintain a "partnership" spirit between the university and the Canton community as we pursue projects of mutual advantage together.

Some of the Canton Initiative projects we have completed include:

Preservation and renovation of several historic buildings to house over a dozen new retail businesses, service businesses, and restaurants.

Support of our local Habitat for Humanity chapter, to allow construction of new, energy-efficient Habitat houses. As the owners pay back the funds, the money will be used to construct additional houses.

Support of a major cleanup project at the site of an old service station and the restoration of a village park.

Support of a planned restoration of an old grist mill that will become a cultural history center.

Support of the construction costs of a new fire station for the community.

Support of a major renovation to the historic public library, a partner serving elementary and middle school children and village residents of all ages.

As we continue to consider co-investments such as I have described, the Canton Initiative Board of Advisors, drawn from our community as well as from the university, suggested to us that what we were doing was not enough to sustain long-term, healthy growth for our community.

Growth and Challenge

We have also begun to see dramatic growth in our own competitiveness over several years, with record numbers of applications to St. Lawrence in the past two cycles. It is likely that the number of St. Lawrence faculty and staff will grow as we become even more competitive. This will increase the demand for housing in and near Canton.

Thus, the community's interest in a somewhat larger population base coupled with our expectation that we will enlarge our employee rolls have inspired a new project, Coming Home, that seeks to bring 100 new families to the region. While some of these families will be those of newly added employees, many of them will also be our own alumni who already understand the benefits of living in a historic residential village that has two universities (Canton is also home to one of the 64 State University of New York campuses) and almost unlimited outdoor recreational opportunities, regional and Canadian cultural attractions, and great people.

We are seeking partnership with a developer on a variety of Canton Initiative/Coming Home investments that would encourage young alumni with families and those of retirement age to return to the area. Central to our plans is the opportunity to build residences that are sustainable in design and environmental sensitivity; three such homes are in the final stages of site plan review, and we hope to begin construction this year.

We also serve as a role model for sustainability efforts in other ways, having created one of the first environmental studies programs in the nation over 30 years ago. Just recently our board of trustees voted "environmental sustainability" as a core university value. And we're seeing this value in practice as we prepare to open our Johnson Hall of Science. The two-building complex features an innovative "green" design, and both construction techniques and materials are state-of-the-art with regard to environmental sensitivity. The project has employed hundreds of local workers, who are being trained in sustainable construction and who are working with sustainable materials.

St. Lawrence's Canton Initiative and Coming Home projects are proving that town and gown can work together and that growth and sustainability can be mutually achievable goals. All of this is good news for New York's North Country.


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