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Future Shock

A Tale of Three Cities: Transforming River Mill Cities into New Age Collegetowns

Here's how these institutions are enhancing urban life
University Business, Oct 2010
Future Shock

So, what do the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, the State University of New York at Binghamton and Berkshire Community College have in common? If you are searching for an answer, just consider the role higher learning has played in the transformation of America's river mill cities into contemporary collegetowns.

These cities are intersected by rivers that flowed by the banks of their mills, providing the products Americans needed from shoes to linen, wood, and metal products, and even cigars. Over time, the rivers and streams turned toxic with effluent from old mills. These older industrial cities were eventually ravaged by lower wages and tax rates in the south, increasing regulatory constraints and spiraling housing costs.

In so many ways, these cities were in the eye of a perfect storm of maturing, indeed, aging manufacturing industries facing craven competition from other regions of the United States and overseas and uncontrollable increases in the cost of doing business. These cities became virtual ghost towns as businesses went belly-up, a demise hastened by the decline of traditional manufacturing companies.

Anyone who knows anything about the Industrial Revolution recognizes the pivotal role played by rivers in site-locating mills (facilities that housed industrial manufacturing for over a century). Manufacturing mills were constructed along canals for hydropower, cooling, and, unfortunately, discharging industrial waste.

Today collegetowns are an accepted way of enriching and diversifying student and faculty life in American higher education.

Gradually, over time, the next generation of business and civic leaders stopped wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over what to do about their mature industries. Instead, they got down to the business of re-imagining what their cities could become and the respective roles their colleges and universities could play in creating demand for new development. These urban revitalization projects directly linked and leveraged the talents, contributions, and resources of the institutions with downtown economic and workforce development organizations.

Thus, institutions such as the University of Massachusetts Lowell, SUNY Binghamton, and Berkshire Community College played a crucial role in attracting new downtown retail development projects; site locating new entrepreneurial start-up companies; establishing urban business incubators; and creating a critical mass of fine visual and performing arts venues, as well as historically significant tourist attractions.

In the new millennium, these old and decayed mill sites have been gutted, reengineered and retrofitted as smart worker classrooms, clean rooms, and clinical testing laboratories. They are providing bleeding edge facilities to support green chemistry, life and health sciences, medical, bioengineering, nanotechnology and pharma-tech research, and new product development.

Today, collegetowns are an accepted way of enriching and diversifying student and faculty life in American higher education. Collegetowns resonate with students and parents who grew up in a culture that recognized their language and symbols in such pop culture movies as With Honors, Rudy, and Animal House.

Berkshire Community College has established itself as a leader in lean and green manufacturing and technology (read as: reducing waste and responding to the opportunities and challenges of advanced manufacturing and sustainable energy solutions). By way of illustrative example, Berkshire's Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Institute (AMTTI) was specially designed to address renewable workforce development needs in Berkshire County.

President Paul Raverta aptly describes the college's role in this way. "Berkshire's partnerships in our community have created new, sustainable jobs and helped build an educated and competitive workforce with critical thinking and complex problem solving skills —these capabilities are now fundamental to work in the emergent fields of biotechnology, plastics, thin film and green technology."

Nowadays, visitors and residents can admire the resilience and ingenuity of Pittsfield, Mass., once the site of the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill and General Electric. For many decades these manufacturing plants produced all kinds of goods, from woven products and arts and crafts and even aircraft engines. Today, the City of Pittsfield has transformed itself into a destination venue for attracting students, families and modern, lean and green manufacturing and assembly companies, and early stage environmental technology firms. This special combination offers a rich mix of educational, culture and recreational events that celebrate the mission and heritage of Pittsfield, nestled in the bucolic foothills of the Berkshires.

Consider the case of Lowell, Mass., located on the banks of the Merrimack and Concord rivers and once coined mill city. Named as one of five "innovative cities" by the Innovative Cities consortium, the City of Lowell's dramatic reversal of fortune was driven by lean manufacturing and, significantly, a robust appetite for commercial and retail development, cultural diversity, and community engagement. The key ingredient in Lowell was that business and civic leaders united behind a co-development strategy, attracted investment from outside the community and leveraged capital financing for building out town/gown infrastructure, like sports stadiums, residential commons, and state-of-the-art student fitness and recreation centers.

As one arrives in the new Lowell, 25 miles north of Boston, visitors regularly ask U.S. Park Rangers about key sites of interest, including the National Park Service's Industrial Revolution Museum, the National Quilt Museum, the Kerouac Literary Festival, and the Merrimac Repertory Theatre.

Chancellor Marty Meehan put it nicely: "It was apparent to the UMass Lowell community that we could best further the University's development interests by planning and designing the new University of Massachusetts, Lowell in partnership with the City, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and our federal political leaders, colleagues and benefactors— the university takes special pride in its exciting partnerships with local and regional business and civic leaders—key players in the transformation of the Merrimack Valley economy and in the quality of life of its citizenry."

In a similar vein, Binghamton, N.Y., once termed the "Valley of Opportunity" by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, due to a high abundance of jobs, has become a leader in high-tech production. It houses companies and corporations such as Lockheed Martin, IBM, BAE Systems, and Endicott Shoes.

The academic programs at SUNY Binghamton reflect the need for educational preparation and job training in high-tech fields.

Today, the academic programs at SUNY Binghamton reflect the need for educational preparation and job training in high-tech fields. Interim President C. Peter McGrath speaks directly to this town/gown approach. "Binghamton utilizes education and research to promote economic and social development not just in the Southern Tier [of New York State], but worldwide."

A recent USA Today feature reported on two types of recession-proof economies: the first, state capitals and the second, collegetowns. In these latter cities, higher education institutions created transportation linkages, river walks, bike paths and pedestrian pathways to guide, inform, and enhance the urban life experience.

Increasingly, Americans are seeking out these river mill collegetowns as powerful options for retail, hospitality, and ecotourism investment and as wise choices to live, learn, start a business and raise a family. This new wave of urban homesteaders has learned that collegetowns are now lifelong destinations and more than temporary undergraduate residences.

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.), and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.