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A new role for old college towns?

Chautauqua could be an idea whose time has come...again
University Business, September 2013

Have you heard about the high school kid who was so adept at playing video games that he won an athletic scholarship to an online university? Beneath the laugh at today’s virtual world is a less exaggerated but more sober reality. The growth of distance learning, with for-credit courses and online degrees from both campus-based and online schools, promises to challenge the economies of college towns and university neighborhoods everywhere.

Campuses won’t go away, but they will face more online competition that is lower-priced and more convenient. For many, the traditional, near-exclusive function of providing students with four or more years of formal, on-site instruction is likely to diminish.

And college town businesses—stores, services, restaurants, landlords—will face tough times when “college student” and “on campus” are no longer inextricably tied. To secure their economic futures, colleges and college towns will benefit from finding additional things to do, and one possibility ideally suited to these places might emerge from the past.

Education and Culture

It’s “the most American thing in America,” said Theodore Roosevelt. He was talking about Chautauqua, a summer-long educational, cultural, and entertainment festival that originated in Chautauqua, N.Y., in 1874.

By the 1920s, “daughter” Chautauquas were found at hundreds of other permanent locations in rural America. Visitors could enjoy lectures, Broadway plays, music, instruction, and outdoor recreation. A road-show version served 45 million people in all but three states. Chautauqua’s decline in the 1930s was caused by the Depression and new technologies—like radio, movies, and the automobile—that reduced the isolation of rural places.

But many of today’s more numerous college-educated families seek travel experiences with a difference. So the 139-year-old idea is now making a comeback at a few of the locations that survived and new ones that have emerged.

The original site and an Ohio version on Lake Erie each draw 100,000 paying customers every year. Yet Chautauqua is still “one of America’s best-kept secrets,” noted Steve Odland in Forbes. But it doesn’t have to be. We have ready-made potential Chautauquas all around the country. They are our college towns.

Summer stimulus

College towns offer what the Chautauquas did, albeit almost exclusively to a single demographic: post-high school students. Chautauqua-style facilities and instruction staff are already in place, paid for, and little-used during the traditional Chautauqua season. And unlike the 14 current U.S. Chautauquas (none is in a college town, and only one is in the West), campuses are well-distributed around the country.

Some college towns that have opened their classes and campus facilities to aging alums are already becoming sought-after retirement venues. What might be the effect on the college town economy if institutions opened themselves to visitors of all ages during lucrative summer vacation periods when most campuses are asleep? Passive, arms-length sightseeing is easily done with films, TV, and the web, yet people still travel to experience the real thing. And the best Chautauqua-style offerings are anything but passive. A challenge to the intellect and a sharing of experience with like-minded people are things you don’t get in other ways.

If we had anywhere near as many Chautauqua programs as we have college campuses, there could even be specialty Chautauquas tailored to diverse identities and interests. Programs could serve artists, environmental enthusiasts, classic car fans, and vacationers with interests ranging from gospel music to sports.

The baby boomers are our largest demographic market and the first to be so widely college-educated. Soporific inactivity, even in vacations or retirement, is not their style. But an updated Chautauqua in a college town could be.

Is there a market that college town leaders can explore for unique summer experiences that could also boost local economies? If so, the Chautauqua idea may be worth revisiting. It’s not every economic development idea, after all, that comes with a popular president’s bully endorsement.

Formerly with the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, John L. Gann, Jr. consults, trains, and writes on marketing places for economic growth. He is author of The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns. He can be reached at