Walk the Line: The Town-Gown Advantage

Walk the Line: The Town-Gown Advantage

WE ALL LIVE NEAR AN invisible line. One that parties on either side are reluctant to cross unless invited. A line that promotes stereotypes and perpetuates skepticism.

It's the imaginary boundary between a college or university and the community in which it is located. It's a barrier that far too many have reinforced and far too few have worked to erase.

Town-gown relationships are all too often tentative and reactionary rather than embracing and visionary. Much like neighbors who never interact, we travel to and from our homes on individual routes, never bothering to intersect with others or to try a new path. To begin to move in concert, rather than in parallel, IHEs and local governments must make bold and deliberate changes.

More importantly, state governments must strategically provide the resources to develop deep and lasting ties between the "ivory towers" and the vibrant communities of which they are a part.

- Renovate vacant buildings and develop vacant lots in the community for new construction sites. For example, Seton Hill University's Center for the Performing Arts is being developed off the main campus and in the cultural district of downtown Greensburg, Pa. And here at Juniata College, we've renovated a former elementary school as the Sill Business Incubator. This out-of-the-box thinking creates facilities that are used by both the townspeople and students, and will attract business, bring in entertainment opportunities, and preserve historic or significant structures by adapting them for collective modern use.

- Develop community-friendly parking for campus facilities. Parking is at a premium on most campuses, but designating spaces for community members using the library or attending events will help remove any "barriers to entry."

- Show them the way. Make sure anyone driving by can find the library, gym, or performing arts center by following clearly marked signs. These signs are the welcome mat at your front door.

- Tell college and university officials what community programs they'd like to see. Chances are that the college may already have a similar program that could be opened to the community, or that a joint program could be developed.

- Work with the local college to develop zoning for areas that combine retail, office, and residential space in ways that benefit both communities.

State governments must provide resources to build ties between colleges and their communities.

- Use local tax dollars for shared facilities, such as a library or athletic facility. Shared projects foster and promote interaction between once-isolated neighbors.

- Continue to support economic stimulus packages that connect the expertise in academic centers with economic development organizations charged with job retention and creation. Pennsylvania's Keystone Innovation Zone program uses governmental grants and tax incentives to create and grow businesses in the communities around colleges. The Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center was created to accelerate technology transfer between research institutions and Massachusetts companies in the context of regional and statewide economic development priorities. There is no need to wait until students graduate before integrating them into the local economic development community.

- Initiate capital-funding initiatives for IHEs. Governors across the country are including capital-project dollars in their budget proposals that support economic development goals, from health care facilities through the University of California to bioscience research via Pennsylvania's Salk Legacy Fund. These funds typically go to large research universities, rather than small, private colleges. Considering there are three times as many private schools than publics across the country, dedicating some dollars for these smaller institutions seems appropriate.

- Fund science-based programs that connect K-12 teachers with higher education resources. Science in Motion, a Pennsylvania program begun at Juniata, provides a four- to 10-fold savings in tax dollars by facilitating the sharing of science equipment among school districts to reduce duplicate purchases.

The advantages of better town-gown relations are obvious: shared facilities, stronger communities, increased opportunities.

Higher education, local government, and state programs are three of Pennsylvania's proudest traditions. There's no reason all three camps can't learn new things- new things that go far in blurring that imaginary line.

Michael Lehman is assistant vice president of the Juniata College Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Huntingdon, Pa.


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