Future Shock: Exploring town-gown relationships

Successful relationships grow out of collaborative planning and programming—and require a shared philosophy and practice of transparency about future development options 
By: | January 22, 2020
(Photo by Seth Dewey on Unsplash)(Photo by Seth Dewey on Unsplash)
James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.

As lifelong New Englanders, James Martin, senior consultant at The Registry, and I have become somewhat geocentric about college towns. Yet ask any New Englander about what makes a college town elicits different answers.

Many towns already host colleges. The other towns might have the requisite economic appetite and workforce demand to attract a college to their downtown areas. 

While conducting research for The New American College Town (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), we studied the lives and stories of scores of aspiring college towns, including those cities and towns populating New England’s north country.

Defining the college town

New Englanders have learned that the mere presence of a college does not make a college town. Indeed, many colleges and their towns have been at odds for years over both typical and idiosyncratic circumstances, such as tax exempt status; public safety; fire and emergency medical services; and, of course, the occasional incident of student misbehavior. 

By design, our research did not focus on Harvard in Cambridge, Yale in New Haven, Brown in Providence, or Dartmouth in Hanover. Instead, we targeted a new breed of towns that can boast having a college within their community—and much more.

In many instances, successful college town models are attributable to proactive engagement on both sides. It is never a good sign if the local college president is a ghost in the eyes of downtown, or if the town administrator is a dead man walking on campus.


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Often overlooked in the process are honest sit-downs with local newspaper publishers so that editorial positions and good news stories are supported by broad community trust and support. 

We also learned that college towns are wonderful places to live, learn, raise families and retire. Just take a look at the growing later-life communities dotting the maps of new college towns. 


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The educational, cultural, social and lifelong learning opportunities of the college enrich the lives of residents and are to the financial benefit of the college and its joint-venture partners.

Increasingly, college town development arises from public-private investment to attract boutique hotels, microbreweries, bookstores, cafés, theaters and family discovery centers. Together, these powerful, thematic strings resonate with a college town vibe.

It is never a good sign if the local college president is a ghost in the eyes of downtown, or if the town administrator is a dead man walking on campus.

Eventually, the parties need to drill down on developing a common business plan with a data-driven, predictive, investment, appraisal, planning and programming process. This focus is aimed at monetizing and commercializing underleveraged college town assets. This iterative business planning process involves the assessment of independently verifiable consumer, economic and workforce development data. We are often reminded that these same colleges are among the northern tier’s largest employers—key economic drivers in an emergent economy.

With all of this said, I am considering here the new kinds of college towns in the northern tier of New England—in New Hampshire and Maine, more specifically.

Taking a college town journey

Rivier University (New Hampshire)

The first stop on this college town journey is Nashua, New Hampshire. Beyond the region’s community and state colleges, Nashua is the proud host of Rivier University.

Rivier President Sister Paula Marie Buley put the town-gown relationship this way: “Rivier University is a proud partner in creating New Hampshire’s newest college town. ‘Nashua is our home’ isn’t just a motto but a way of life. The vibrant and accessible downtown environment serves as a magnet for our students. Retail, transportation and recreational activities all come to mind, with the downtown serving as a hub of special activities. Rivier also shares Nashua’s aspiration for expanding first-class medical care through high-quality programs in nursing, health sciences, life sciences, biotech and behavioral health.” 

Led by a visionary mayor and committed business and civic leaders, Nashua is now experiencing an urban renaissance. Significantly, its redevelopment plan has captured the investment of venture capital partners who together with the city are restoring old mills (Manzo Development Co.), creating new river walks, connecting commuter rails, and attracting upscale amenities and coming attractions.


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When we conducted exit polls with students and interview local plant managers, they told us they need affordable housing and a destination place to live—a place where there is always something happening, such as concerts, poetry readings, antique car shows, farmers markets, and a palpable college-town atmosphere downtown. 

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess articulated the city’s potential in his State of the City message: “There is a strong demographic trend: Young people are moving to cities, and Boston is too expensive or too large for many. We must recognize that Nashua is in competition with Lowell, Providence, Worcester and Manchester. The regional and national reputation that we build is critical in attracting creative and energetic young people who wish to join in Nashua’s journey.”


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Colby-Sawyer College (New Hampshire)

Heading 66 miles north of Nashua, this college town journey continues in New London. Chartered in 1779 and nestled in the hills of New Hampshire’s Sunapee mountain and lake region, New London has long been the home of Colby-Sawyer College.

From its earliest days, Colby-Sawyer opened up the campus to members of the New London community. Fast forward to today and it is not uncommon to find local residents enrolled in classes and genuinely engaged in fine, visual and performing arts events. New London community members also have access to the Hogan Sports Center. Beyond sports and athletics, Colby-Sawyer is reportedly developing a major strategic partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital System to expand the workforce development capacity in the medical, health care, health sciences and biomedical fields.

Just stroll the campus and the surrounding township and you will see a perfect jumping-off place for camping, cycling, hiking, skiing, fishing, boating and adventure tourism.

President Susan Stuebner offered this perspective: “When you think about the landscape of small private colleges, the meaningful experiential component that Colby-Sawyer offers really distinguishes it in the marketplace. Colby-Sawyer’s location also made it appealing. As a Dartmouth graduate and someone who spent 10 years in New England, returning to this region felt like coming home. New London is a wonderful community in a beautiful setting.”

University of Maine at Presque Isle

Heading north from New London, the college town journey continues in Presque Isle, Maine. Chartered in 1859 and long known for its lumber industry, Presque Isle is a key economic development center for the surrounding Aroostook County region. It is proud host to the University of Maine at Presque Isle, an important institution within the University of Maine System 

Founded in 1903 as Aroostook State Normal School and rechartered in 1971 as the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the university offers a comprehensive array of academic and career preparation programs, courses and learning experiences.

The university is home to the early wind energy project, which provides clean power to the region. The university also includes the Northern Maine Museum and the world-famous solar system model. It is no surprise that Presque Isle has been voted an all-American city, and it is, notably, an age-friendly place to retire. 

Today, Presque Isle offers new restaurants, retail shops, farmers markets, riverside summer concerts, and movies in the park. Presque Isle is also known for its launch pad of the Double Eagle balloon transatlantic flight and the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival.

At the dedication of its new greenhouse, UM Presque Isle President Ray Rice put the university’s commitment to sustainability this way: “Today’s greenhouse dedication opens a new horizon for our ag science bachelor’s degree program, providing our students with an incredible, high-tech and hands-on learning space, and our faculty with a dedicated spot for ag-related research projects.” 

University of Maine at Farmington

The final destination of this college town journey is Farmington, a rural town chartered in 1794 and known for its spectacular mountain scenery and hydropower. Beyond hydropower, we learned about the university’s commitment to clean energy alternatives and the sustainability of our ecosystem.

Founded in 1864 as Western State Normal School, the University of Maine at Farmington has grown to become a special jewel in the liberal arts crown of the University of Maine System. UMaine Farmington President Edward Serna has praised the university’s freshman learning experience, “The Good Life,” a useful opportunity to help freshmen become purposeful, resourceful and college ready.  

At a corner café, one can sense a college town vibe amid the banter of students, faculty, staff and visiting alumni.

Generations of families have traveled to Farmington to enjoy recreational facilities at Sugarloaf Mountain and as a gateway to the western lakes region. It is like a page from the Eastern Mountain Sports catalog. At the same time, you will also find a Walmart, Dunkin Donuts and Olympia Sports—all signs of a growing college town surrounded by the splendid isolation of the mountains and lakes of western Maine.

Collaborating for success

We learned that college towns don’t just happen by accident. They reflect the organic engagement of a larger community. In fact, the best town-gown relationships grow out of collaborative planning and programming—both downtown and on campus. This collaborative planning requires a shared philosophy and practice of transparency, forthrightness and candor about future development options.  

Just as students must reinvent themselves for multiple careers, college towns need the foresight to plan for changing times. One way to address the rising costs of higher education is to bring quality higher learning closer to home, making higher ed options accessible and affordable.


James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.