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All a Part of the Plan

This president says city planning and economic development issues should be on institutional agendas.
University Business, Feb 2006

Four-and-a-half years into being the president of Wilkes University, I find myself more passionate than ever about the future of the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where we are located. Nearly $150 million worth of construction and renovation have begun in the downtown alone. And more is on the way as the city gets back on its feet again.

Here in Wilkes-Barre, as elsewhere, presidents of universities large and small increasingly must become part of the economic development solution in their cities. One of my colleagues here at Wilkes recently joked that I sound like the mayor in my frequent presentations to neighborhood groups, business leaders, and politicians about the exciting urban renewal underway.

Many presidents are talking about the need to renew the cities in which their institutions are located. That's because, when the city surrounding their institution struggles, they must get involved and take a larger, more proactive role in economic development and, on occasion, the political reform required.

Sometimes this means buying and developing real estate, sometimes it means helping with planning for economic development and revitalization, and sometimes it means pushing for a certain political outcome. Most of the time it means all of the above.

Stepping up and taking a leadership role in economic development is necessary, because smaller cities with budget woes don't have adequate resources to devote to long-term planning. Immediate needs like filling potholes and cutting the park grass take precedence.

While most associate active urban renewal projects with the likes of Harvard in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Columbia in New York City, presidents of urban universities across the country are involved in a wide range of city planning and economic development issues. If they are not, they should be.

In my case, I realized that taking an active role in the development of downtown Wilkes-Barre would help the university reach its goals much faster than if we remained on the sidelines. As you will read, many people need to work together, but from my experience a university president can and should play an important catalytic role.

Located in a small Northeastern, post-industrial city of 35,000 people with a big heart and even bigger economic challenges, Wilkes University is nestled on the banks of the beautiful north branch of the Susquehanna River. The institution has experienced steady enrollment growth for the last six years, while the region's population has declined.

Part of the decline started when the anthracite coalmines closed and put thousands of people out of work a half-century ago. Hurricane Agnes added to the city's woes by devastating it in 1972. Flood reclamation never completely materialized and the city teetered on the edge of financial bankruptcy for years.

But Wilkes-Barre is blessed with striking architecture, a talented work force, and a strong core of civic leaders dedicated to the region's vitality. The new Wachovia Arena plays host to ice hockey and other events. The stunning Kirby Theater on the square downtown is a destination for many touring musicians and theater troupes. Founded by stubborn Connecticut Yankees in the 18th century, Wilkes-Barre is nothing if not stubborn in its determination to rise again.

Our Mayor's "I Believe" campaign has brought the city a new slogan. It captures the positive attitude needed to combat some chronic negativity--about the region's future that has confounded us over the years. The slogan has caught on and is posted on storefronts across the city, including our own electronic signboard.

Wilkes' future is inextricably linked to the health and vibrancy of Wilkes-Barre and its surrounding communities. The university simply cannot reach its enrollment goals and increase its reputation without a corresponding improvement in the city and its image.

Wilkes University wants to become a great institution dedicated to academic excellence through a mentoring culture that engages, challenges, and supports our students in extraordinary ways. While a great academic program is essential, just as important are great campus surroundings. For that to happen it's imperative that new businesses and cultural amenities take root and grow around us. Our students and their faculty mentors need things to do--cultural and entertainment activities that enhance their quality of life.

No matter how good the education you offer is, an economically depressed city makes recruiting students from outside the region difficult (an essential element of our growth plan), hurts retention, and attracts a preponderance of commuter students.

Research designed to help brand our university as a mentoring-based institution found that students cited the location as one of the main reasons they were reluctant to attend Wilkes. Recruiting faculty and staff from outside the region is also a challenge.

These are not issues that Wilkes University faces alone. I was interested to read in an article earlier this year by Boston Globe architecture correspondent Robert Campbell how UPenn established partnerships with the Philadelphia private sector to generate cultural facilities, restaurants, and housing around the campus. He also pointed out that The Ohio State University in Columbus and the University of Cincinnati have done the same thing.

My ability to help with city development took a decided turn for the better with a recent change in city administration. The newly elected mayor has embraced the colleges located here. So much so that he has declared Wilkes-Barre a college town. This is a far cry from the days when Wilkes University and our neighbor, King's College, which is right up the street, were criticized for just being here.

This new political environment has allowed Wilkes to begin dialogues that would not have been possible before. It helped build relationships with city administrators that reduced suspicion and established trust. Knowing that we shared mutually compatible goals made it easier to reach consensus on difficult issues.

Without partners, such as colleagues from King's College, we could not have accomplished as much. When we speak together, our two colleges represent the largest city employer.

To develop a campus master plan is to dream a little. When we set out to reorient our campus and plan 20 years into the future, we dreamed, but we also knew there were realities that needed to be addressed. To address them, we asked an assistant to the mayor, a zoning officer, and a member of the city's chamber of commerce to join our campus planning committee. We also included the county engineer. These four individuals participated to an unprecedented extent and helped us understand the long-term development plans of the city and the region.

This input ensured that the university's master plan was in sync with the city's long-term plans. Complementary strategies make a great impression on sources of funding such as the state and federal governments and donors, all of whom look for synergies to leverage their funds.

Wilkes' master plan is predicated on making the campus more pedestrian-friendly and having it reoriented to the river and business district. We learned from government committee members that the state and city planned to reduce one of the major thoroughfares through the campus to a one-lane road. Knowing this early on helped the university's architects and transportation planners shape our direction. Our work matched nicely with the county's plan to develop the city's riverfront into a park and amphitheater, after improvements to the river's levees.

There was an even greater benefit to having city personnel involved--they agreed with the overall assumptions of our plan and helped us rezone the university's entire footprint. As long as our development moves fit within the master plan, Wilkes can use a shorter, less onerous approval process to seek zoning approvals for each change it makes to the campus landscape and facilities. This is a welcome departure from the past and saves us a lot of money and effort.

Compatible visions and trust made it possible to negotiate a classic "win/win" deal to purchase an 80,000-square-foot building with a parking garage from the city for $7.9 million. The deal removed a significant financial burden from the city and saved taxpayers millions of dollars in debt payments. Wilkes was able to obtain a building that will house a whole host of student-centered functions and administrative offices, plus increase the number of parking spaces on campus while enabling us to remove several unsightly surface parking lots in the center of campus. It also gives students and administrators at Wilkes a presence on Main Street.

A substantial increase in foot traffic--we estimate that hundreds of students and faculty will traverse Main Street--will attract businesses that cater to the needs of the university community.

Focus on Main Street has been a priority and we have spent considerable effort in city-university relations to negotiate a joint King's College and Wilkes University bookstore that will be located in the city center--equidistant from our campuses. This is just one example of how university presidents can help downtown development for the betterment of both.

In addition to being a college town, the city also wants to become a center for arts and cultural activities. This is based on research that shows the economic multiplier effect is much higher for cultural facilities than for professional athletics venues. The city-university vision is to have a cultural center become home to a wide spectrum of arts-related activities, including educational opportunities for community members.

The university helped support a feasibility study conducted by a specialized consulting firm to analyze what would be needed to make this idea work. The study showed support from the community that is helping city officials justify getting behind the project. Wilkes and city officials are now working with the local nonprofit Cultural Council of Luzerne County to find a suitable location for the arts center.

Without Wilkes putting skin in the game, this important economic development push would not be as far along as it is. We hope this center will play a vital role in the city's revitalization and contribute to the quality of life of citizens in the county and that of our students.

The sheer number of municipal governments in the region stymies economic development. The need exists for municipal coordination and cooperation when it comes to economic development. Wilkes University, with the help of sister institutions and business leaders, formed the Joint Urban Studies Center (JUSC), a regional think tank dedicated to revitalizing the region. JUSC is helping Wilkes-Barre develop new ideas and ways to partner with neighboring communities and take advantage of economies of scale.

The JUSC has served as a resource to the city on many occasions, including its drive to bring WiFi to the downtown. In fact, the executive director, who works for the university, meets with the mayor regularly about city issues.

The work of urban renewal is not just about buying buildings; it's about growing existing businesses and starting new ones. That's the mission of the Wilkes University Small Business Development Center. Center personnel work with entrepreneurs to develop business plans, hold seminars, and purchase software important to local entrepreneurs.

One of the most important projects for revitalizing and sustaining the economic upturn in downtown is the creation of a business improvement district, or BID, which supplements the cleaning, payrolling, customer service, and marketing services the city is able to provide in the downtown. The net result is a cleaner, healthier downtown that attracts inhabitants and visitors.

This special district requires the city council's approval to assess an extra fee on properties located in the designated district. These fees will be used to plant flowers, clean graffiti and sidewalks, and provide uniformed ambassadors to help shoppers feel safe.

Along with partners in the chamber of commerce, I plan on being one of the primary advocates lobbying fellow downtown business partners to support the BID project. I will be going door to door to talk with property owners about the need to invest even more in downtown. As president of an institution in the city, it's the least I can do.

Tim Gilmour is president of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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