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Details of Retail

Looking to spur neighborhood development and attract and keep new students? Working toward the right retail mix will help.
University Business, Mar 2007

"If you build it, they will come." That's easily one of the most overused movie lines of last century. But it applies to much in higher ed.

First it was, "If you built a great reputation, students and faculty will come." Then came along: "If you have a great sports team, they will come," and "If you have a great dining hall and housing, they will come."

Balanced amenities and retail in the vicinity of campus are key student magnets, as well. "Our campus and the surrounding community and [its] location is a really critical factor in our competing not only for students, but for faculty and staff," says Ann M. Dykstra, executive assistant to President William G. Durden of Dickinson College (Pa.).

Getting the right mix of retail businesses around campus can be a Catch-22 situation: Administrators think small-town stores won't satisfy, yet big chains won't move in until the locals prove successful. The question isn't always what stores should be built, but how to create retail areas that cater both to students and town residents.

Certainly, the retail store selection near campus is partly why students choose the schools that they do, agrees Midge McCauley, principal of ERA (Economics Research Associates), a retail strategic implementation corporation. "The problem is, most college students spend money at home, not in their college town."

College and university leaders can help influence the mix of local retail so that it appeals to students and full-time town residents, supplying both big-name zeal and hometown appeal. Sometimes it means building from scratch, or improving on retail that's already there, by working with local officials.

Here's how three institutions are helping to enhance the local retail scene:

Just a few days after the American Revolution ended in 1783, the first college in the new United States of America was born in Carlisle, located in southcentral Pennsylvania. For the last two centuries, the state has been influenced by the industrial history that's supported its economy: Aside from oil and coal, Pennsylvania still leads the country in specialty steel. As is common in rural industrial America, many of the state's liberal arts colleges remained separate from the once-quaint, now-quiet communities around them, emphasizing that long-standing "townie" versus school mentality. So four years ago, when Dickinson leaders realized downtown Carlisle had evolved from an industrial town "hot spot" to a sleepy retail district, they worried the effect would ripple toward campus, implying that Dickinson was behind the times.

"A lot of IHEs have been interfacing with their communities and looking at the retail districts that abut [their] campuses," says Dykstra. Though most of that recognition happens at larger institutions-the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pennsylvania, for example-Dickinson's president realized that a downtown with no ubiquitous charm would drive away youthful student interest in Dickinson, as well as new staff who might otherwise call Carlisle home.

"Dickinson's involvement with its community is deeply rooted in our Revolutionary legacy," says President Durden. "Our recent efforts are intended to redefine for the 21st century the historic connection between Dickinson and Carlisle-one that not only recognizes the significance of a vibrant downtown district in contemporary life, but also offers engaged learning opportunities for our students and faculty."

Dykstra and Rusty Shunk, executive vice president for College and Community Relations, say Dickinson's redefining process started with simple questions to campus and community members about what they wanted. "Oh, if we only could get a Gap, a Starbucks, a Talbots..." they heard. But when Dickinson officials hired civic development researchers and retail experts to help redefine Carlisle's downtown, they learned that big-name retailers just might not fit the community. "Not every college town is identical," says Dykstra. "What makes it work in the community is finding how to connect in a unique way."

With a state grant and matching funds from the community, Philadelphia-based consulting group CivicVisions was brought in to help bridge the retail gap between town and campus. The group is run by principals Susan Nigra Snyder and George Thomas, both professors in the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Employing a number of resources, the duo helps towns find their "civic identity"-in other words, figure out where the town's been before knowing where it's going.

"In the case of Carlisle, everyone swore up and down that they went downtown," says Snyder, "until we got them to map their Saturday afternoon, and no one went downtown." Students weren't going there, either. Administrators had long fielded complaints about how far away the shopping district was-even though it was less than a three-block stroll. So through nearly 16 workshops and community meetings, CivicVisions helped Dickinson move toward a better understanding of the interception of the college and the some 18,000-member Carlisle community. How could the campus create a balanced and specialized downtown that included independently owned stores, some student housing, and campus offices?

A sleepy downtown could drive away student interest.

"Like many residential liberal arts colleges, we operate on an eight-and-a-half-month calendar. So for the town to design a retail district to only appeal to college students is not economically viable," says Shunk. "We learned we need to find retail establishments that appeal to cross-generational clientele." Coffee shops, eateries, and unique retailers will help the small-town downtowns do what downtowns do best: Bring people together.

What else have Dickinson leaders absorbed about retail in the past four years? For one, large retailers are probably not what will make the community unique, says Dykstra. The college and town have begun work on the "High I," an intersection of streets shaped like a capital "I," on which campus offices and housing have spread to the downtown. And instead of dreaming of so-called "silver-bullet" big chains like the Gap, the High I Board, with its school and community representatives, will help enliven Carlisle's perimeter.

"My biggest point with the High I Board is [having] appreciation, in any given situation," says Jeff Wood, a member of the board who with his wife, Betsy, has owned the Whistlestop Book Shop in downtown Carlisle since 1988. "Examine what you are already good at [and] build on strengths rather than wish for something you don't have," advises Wood, an '85 alumnus of Dickinson.

Vanessa Fiorentino was hired to help Dickinson do just that. She joined the High I team in January as retail coordinator, a position suggested by ERA's McCauley. Fiorentino is responsible for melding CivicVisions ideas with Dickinson's hopes for the area by courting appropriate retail owners to hang a shingle in downtown Carlisle.

McCauley came up with what she believes is an appropriate retail mix, explains Dykstra-zones of mixed retail, eateries, and arts-related venues, such as places that offer music, theater, or art. With longtime believers in Carlisle like Wood, a new Japanese restaurant downtown, and with more ethnic choices on the way, Fiorentino's hopefully won't be a difficult job.

Not all institutions have to enhance their downtowns with retail, because for some, it's already there. Instead, they opt for bringing additional retail development to their own turf.

Such is the case with University of Maryland, College Park. The state's fifth largest city has your traditional suburban Home Depot; a slew of small strip malls populated by pubs, craft stores, and office supply shops; and tons of fast-food restaurants. The goal is to bring more of those amenities to the campus proper, as well as to push students beyond the grounds to find the things they need and want.

The institution's East Campus Redevelopment Initiative is an opportunity to transform a 38-acre underutilized portion of the campus into a vibrant environment by adding retail, residential housing, and recreational and entertainment areas.

UM attracts faculty and students from around the world, says John D. Porcari, former VP for the university's Office of Administrative Affairs who now works for Maryland's Department of Transportation. "We needed the type of amenities-including recreation-that the best and brightest would expect."

The university owns the land, so it's much easier to develop. The current situation is a stark contrast from when the college built its research park and had to piece together some 128 acres over time to complete the project. But the research park was more of an educational project; the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative is all about bringing some light, levity, and pursuit of good living to students and staff and the 14,000 permanent College Park residents.

The initiative's mission includes catalyzing the redevelopment of the U.S. Route 1 corridor, and promoting partnerships with the City of College Park. The East Campus Development would be the largest private development opportunity on Route 1, so UM is partnering with the private sector to provide lots of retail opportunities, creating jobs and further linking the city and campus.

"We learned we need to find retail establishments that appeal to cross-generational clientele." -Rusty Shunk, Dickinson College

"Part of the allure of a university is the environment it's in," says Porcari. So development plans include entertainment and retail venues. "[This project] is explicitly more than just a university development. There are a lot of residents in College Park. And the residents in the area are very excited." Those residents had ample opportunity to add their input, on committees with city administrators, the existing downtown business community, and the county executive's office. They were also invited to a forum, where the project was presented and questions and comments addressed.

"The expectation is that the redevelopment of East Campus will have a largely positive effect on the surrounding business and residential community," says Irene B. Redmiles, director of Real Estate within UM's Division of Administrative Affairs. "The creation of this area as a destination-a place for living, working, and gathering-will bring new visitors, residents, spending, and investment."

UM recently received what Redmiles calls "Part B proposals," and by this month a project team was expected to be in place. (As of late January, no decisions had yet been made regarding specific retail names or uses.)

And although Porcari can't say when the project might conclude, he is excited about the vision: "It should absolutely crackle with excitement! It should be the regular place to go, one of the hot spots," featuring fine arts performances, and places to eat and drink at most hours of the day. "And when it's finished," he adds, "the first thing I'm going to do is get a good cup of coffee and listen to some good music."

Although Dickinson and UM are leading the charge in their areas, the community is usually the driving force behind retail development. The Downtown Austin Alliance is a perfect example. The University of Texas at Austin is the fourth largest public university in the country, yet only six or seven thousand students live on campus, leaving some 43,000 students populating the surrounding southeast and southwest parts of town.

Austin's entertainment district is a bustling hot spot for students, but "it's a real disparate population," says Molly Alexander, associate director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. There's a residential community, but the vibe "really is party, party, party," with about 57 bars in 140 buildings, and only about 14 restaurants and 10 retail stores. "There's not as much diversity as we'd like to have," she says.

So the alliance is studying the heart of Austin's entertainment district, called East 6th Street, to create a stronger retail mix that appeals to students wanting to party-hardy, as well as to Austinites wishing to reclaim their town from the 20-somethings-or at least make peace with their spending and leisure time activities.

Austin's got great bones, with buildings from the '20s and an entrepreneurial spirit among developers. But, says Alexander, in spite of a flood of 80,000-ish people on football weekends, the city has watched national retailers like Gap and Barnes & Noble leave, because of too-high rents and too little revenue generated from a demographic that spends most of its expendable cash in their hometowns during school vacation.

UT has played a part in upping the ante in Austin's entertainment district, such as raising the city's arts profile with the Blanton Arts Museum, which promotes both arts and arts-outside-the-box social activities like a new Sunday morning "cereal with the kids" ritual. The university has also invested in a new hotel. But with a focus on campus-related programming, it is the Downtown Austin Alliance, not UT, that's hunting down retail to even out the district.

The alliance's daily problem becomes how to bring retail back to a city that exists primarily as a hangout for college kids.

Plenty of towns and IHEs try wooing retailers on their own, but they rarely have the full-time resources to make it happen. Working with a firm like Civic-Visions is a first step for IHEs to clarify retail values and goals. The first step toward implementing those goals may be hiring a retail development strategist.

Connecting clients with specialized retail coordinators charged with finding retailers for empty space is key for firms like ERA. "The coordinators are going to work with the strip centers and big boxes, and will lease to the Home Depots," says McCauley. They'll work with boutique entrepreneurs, too.

McCauley connected Downtown Austin Alliance with retail coordinator Linda Asaf. With MBAs from Columbia in finance and marketing, a 12-year career in business law, and 10 years in account management for Fortune 500s like Citibank and IBM, Asaf has been more than useful in evaluating some 500 stores in south and central Texas on behalf of DAA. Her ranking system, based on multiple store trips, evaluates everything from merchandise to layout to whether the store is in a position for expansion. From there, she and the alliance approach about 20 percent of the pool.

"It's a long, long, long process," she says. "I don't walk in and say, 'Hi, I'm the retail recruiter,' " explains Asaf. "I go in, shop, chat up the employees." As a women's fashion designer with her own showroom in Austin, she can also crank up the shoptalk with potential retailers on a personal basis, discussing everything from store layout to how much they could hope to earn in a new location in a year.

Her fashion background has also helped UT's fashion design internship program. She'll pair student interns with area stores. "Bringing local businesses along the bus route for University of Texas," she points out, would mean "a lot more opportunity for students to learn."

Jennifer Chase Esposito is a Boston-based freelance writer.

The Stats Specialists

After groups like CivicVisions help decipher the civic identity of a campus and before an ERA-esque group can offer a retail coordinator so space can be bought, ground can be broken, or retailers can be courted, very important information must be had about what students, faculty, and staff want from their campus's new development. That's where a firm like Maguire Associates-which has worked with more than 500 schools on implementing best practices in administration, enrollment management, marketing, communications, and student retainment and engagement-can help. Maguire's clients range from Ivy League schools to those needing help attracting more students in order to survive. And they do that, through research.

"We help universities work smarter to shape their future," says Linda Cox Maguire, executive vice president of the firm. "We love helping them be true to why they were founded, yet modern."

The 4-6 month process goes something like this: At the outset, Maguire Associates completely immerses itself in campus culture, learning where the power resides and how the campus community communicates with itself and the outside world. Surveys are fielded among constituent groups. Consultants then evaluate the survey responses, working to illuminate the subtle nuances of the responses, understanding the opinions expressed and how decisions are made.

What are some basic trends they've seen in their research? Says Maguire, "In the good ol' days it used to be 'Tell me the reputation of your university.' Now, it's 'tell me the amenities, the perks, the special facilities, how many students are graduating to get quality jobs?' "

Maguire Associates has been tracking the "campus beyond gates" concept, noting what Maguire calls a near restlessness of students wanting to get off their immediate campuses in search of educational and work opportunities. For many students, physically "getting to work is a growing issue," says Maguire, if they don't have a car to drive long distances to their jobs. So increased retail and amenities literally around their campuses means more chances for off-campus employment.

The firm worked closely with Boston University, which recently finished the second phase of its Student Village. The neighborhood comprises residential space as well as recreational space, including an amenities-rich fitness and recreation center.

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