For the past few months, I’ve been on something of a Spring College Town Tour. Work and family events have taken me on the road to Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina), Charlottesville (University of Virginia), College Park (University of Maryland), Manhattan (Kansas State), Starkville (Mississippi State), and Tuscaloosa (University of Alabama). As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about how communities, especially smaller towns, can best capture the benefits of their dominant, and often dominating, university neighbors.
Living in a college town has its upsides and downsides. You get better cultural events and restaurants, but you might also have a frat boy urinating on your lawn at 2AM. But, like it or not, college towns are pretty much yoked to their local universities. Smart communities are recognizing this fact and developing some smart new approaches to building better town-gown connections for economic development. They are seeking to tap into what some analysts are calling the “Hidden College Town Economy.”
Until recently, most university economic development focused strategies have been somewhat one-dimensional with a heavy focus on technology transfer and commercialization. Under this vision, dubbed the Magic Beanstalk Vision by some critics, economic development would “magically” occur as good ideas, patents, and technologies flow off campus into the community. Newer concepts like the Triple Helix Model recognize the important role of business and government partners, but still remain tightly focused on the university’s role as an R&D engine.
Fortunately, many University leaders are moving in the right direction, and embracing a more holistic view of their roles in supporting local development. Groups like the University Economic Development Association and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities are leading the charge to better local engagement. An International Town-Gown Association also exists to build closer connections.
But, what about the community side of things? What are college towns doing to strengthen their side of the town-gown partnership? There is no one single way to capitalize on being a college town. In fact, a primary take-away from my recent college town tour is that smart communities seek to create an array of linkages to their local university. The university is an economic anchor and driver in many ways. Researchers generate new ideas and business concepts, college offices purchase local goods and services, students and faculty want retail and entertainment options, and tourists want to visit for sporting events and other activities. Why not connect to all of these activities?
All of these roles generate great economic opportunities. Research, technology, and new ideas are a critical and long understood spin-off benefit from universities. This field has been well-covered elsewhere—lots of new innovations are being tested. For example, exciting work is underway to develop proof of concept centers, new models for university research parks, and new approaches to entrepreneurship education.
University campuses are major anchor institutions with massive buying power. In urban areas, it is not unusual to see comprehensive anchor institution strategies tapping into this buying power. (A good compendium is here.) These approaches are rare in smaller towns, but could be easily adopted and, more importantly, generate some exciting new business opportunities. In particular, the potential for linking emerging local food networks to college purchasing offices is exciting. Lots of smaller colleges are already on board. (Here’s a look at initiatives in Central Appalachia), and larger land-grant schools are getting in the mix too. Cornell University has been a leader on this front, but more universities need to get on board. These local food connections help strengthen the local economy, while also providing another in-demand amenity to students.
Students and university staff and faculty also want extensive retail options—something beyond cheap beer and fast food. Today, many college towns lack high quality retail outlets even though local students and residents often have extensive buying power. According to Divaris Real Estate, $200 billion is spent each year in US college town retail markets. Smart communities are tapping this market. For example, in Rock Hill, SC, the community and Winthrop College have come together to develop an innovative “College Town Action Plan.” In Starkville, the development of the Cotton District has led to a boom in new restaurants and clubs that attract numerous Mississippi State students.
Finally, college towns are becoming highly desirable designations. Sporting events are huge draws. In communities like Starkville, community fairs and arts festivals are closely tied to home games and other events like the spring football game. Other communities have built hotels and convention centers to attract visitors for business meetings and the like. For example, in Manhattan, KS, a local conference center has just opened for business. In Lincoln, NE, events and meetings can be held at the iconic Memorial Stadium, home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
In addition to attracting tourists, college towns are often quite desirable for retirees as well. I’ve written in the past about retiree attraction strategies—few communities are better situated than college towns to capitalize on the migration of well-off and well-educated retirees. . In fact, college towns typically dominate the annual lists of the “Best Places to Retire.” And, specific college town projects targeting retirees are increasingly common. In State College, PA, residents of the Village at Penn State can attend classes and root on the Nittany Lions. In Lawrence, KS (home of the University of Kansas), a city-backed Retiree Attraction and Retention Task Force has developed a multi-pronged plan to develop new amenities for retirees.
There’s a lot of exciting things happening in America’s college towns. Forward thinking college presidents are embracing their home communities; it’s time for local leaders to return the embrace.
Erik R. Pages