Private/Public Partnerships Can Work
Reading, Pa., northwest of Philadelphia, is a city in transition. With 80,000 residents, the historically Pennsylvania-German city has become an urban melting pot with a Latino population of nearly 39 percent. North 13th Street cuts across very different socio-economic neighborhoods, going in a matter of blocks from a working class, predominantly Latino area of modest row-homes, to the solidly middle and upper-middle class single-family homes surrounding a college campus.
North 13th is also a street of schools. Within 10 blocks are Albright College, a high school, a middle school, and two elementary schools. Indeed, North 13th was once named the only street in America where you can go right from kindergarten to college. Albright, a 150-year-old liberal-arts college, is the only private institution of the five.
Like North 13th, Reading itself is a small place where relationships are important. Nurturing and expanding those relationships, we've learned, can have both social and economic benefits. Albright has always wanted to be neighborly, but it used to be rather easy to be an intellectual oasis tucked in a corner of Reading. Now we invite the community in for events and actively take the college out into the city by partnering with local organizations.
Across from the college stands Albright's Shirk Stadium. Privately built in 1909 for minor league baseball, the stadium was reconstructed in the early 1930s. Until recently, it still had the original stone entry gate, concrete grandstands, and some original exterior stone walls. Once grand, the walls had begun to crumble. The stadium had become something of an eyesore in the well-kept neighborhood around the college.
Reading High has played football in Shirk Stadium for three-quarters of a century. The Red Knight Marching Band's parade along North 13th from the high school to the stadium on Friday nights during football season has been a memorable ritual. Not surprisingly, Albright had floated the idea of the high school and college together building a new stadium. Somehow the timing was never right.
Then, in the spring of 2004, an Albright alumnus offered $1 million toward a new stadium. Bolstered by continued strong enrollments and improved bond ratings, the college found another $3 million (over five years) in the operating budget. And the Reading School Board, after doing a feasibility study on constructing their own stadium, realized that partnering with Albright was an attractive option. Our athletic schedules were compatible; we play in the daytime, they play at night. We had already been sharing the stadium for decades.
Rather than building our own $4 million, 3,000-seat facility, an additional $2 million from the school district would get us a $6 million, state-of-the-art, 5,000-seat, all-weather field and stadium that met everyone's needs.
The process was a model of negotiation, thanks to the goodwill of all the participants (including attorneys!). We wrapped up the agreement in a mere five weeks. The college owns the stadium. The school district has a 99-year lease, which satisfies their desire for an equity stake. They will use it only for football and occasional district events, and pay maintenance and custodial fees on those occasions.
Albright didn't want to compromise its independence, and the school district needed to steward its public funds. We accomplished both needs so well that there was not the slightest murmur of taxpayer opposition to the plan. Local leaders, media, and alumni celebrated the success. The facility will be fully open this fall.
Beyond the stadium, this partnership has pointed the way to the possibilities of even greater involvement with the city. Trust, dialogue, and creative thinking can go a long way to making up for tight budgets.
As for the stadium, each school has its own concession stands and flag poles. But the new entrance has a single sign: "Shirk Stadium: Home of the Albright Lions and the Reading High School Red Knights."
David C. Stinebeck is a veteran administrator who served as interim president at Albright College during the negotiations for the stadium.