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Town-Gown Dramatics

Why strong town-gown relationships do not flourish unattended—and what they do require
University Business, December 2012

Unintended consequences will frequently result from unique events. Barton College (N.C.) fashioned one of the most dramatic finishes ever played when it won the DII National Men’s Basketball Championship in spring 2007. In the last 45 seconds, a single point guard sank five baskets. The shot that won the game dropped with 0.1 seconds to go. (If you love basketball and have not seen this clip, it’s on YouTube under “Barton College Basketball.”)

Our national championship is a lot of fun to talk about, and it forms the continuing inspiration for our college marketing program. It also highlighted the town-gown relationship that we enjoy with the city of Wilson. With a population of 50,000, Wilson is on the primary transportation corridor of the East Coast, has a strong industrial and corporate base, and one of the highest average weekly incomes in the state. An exurb of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas of the country, it enjoys a net in-commute employment base, has a robust planning program, and is connected through strategic planning to the Research Triangle.

Wilson celebrates the college’s million-dollar per-week economic impact on the community. This relationship spilled over into a spontaneous community festival when our Bulldogs returned home from their championship game. More than 5,000 citizens welcomed our student-athlete champions all along the entry road and at a picnic outside the college’s gymnasium, complete with fried chicken, pork barbecue, and network TV cameras.

Building on Victory

That celebration caught the NCAA’s attention. The organization invited Mayor Bruce Rose, our athletic director, and me to the national convention in D.C., to highlight the “poster child” relationship between a college and a city. A number of factors contributed to our hometown success story.

Nine years ago, its seeds were embedded in two cultural programs (a friends-of-the-library organization and a symphony) and a college security contract with the Wilson Police Department. Those connections, it has turned out, were a sufficient base.

We began our work by forming the Wilson-Barton Partnership with the active support of the Wilson Chamber of Commerce.

This involved inviting representatives from across city constituencies to join. The invitation stated that our purpose was “to celebrate the partnership between Barton College and the Wilson community and to promote understanding of our mutual dependence.” We announced that members would hear an “insider’s view” of the college.

Vision Through Socializing

It was a rudimentary beginning. Building on the community’s love of socializing, we began an annual dinner event by selecting and recognizing a business leader of the year. In a city replete with successful entrepreneurs, there was a pent-up desire to come together and highlight those successes. This celebration has grown every year, and students who benefit from the scholarships made possible by this event are part of the program. They frequently steal the show.

The Wilson-Barton Partnership took its place beside other Wilson community initiatives promoted by the Arts Council, the Economic Development Council, the Chamber, and many others. When community leaders formed a group to identify an overall vision for the community and to provide “leadership for collaboratively achieving the community vision,” I was asked to be its inaugural chair.

The new organization, Wilson 20/20, began by annually establishing and monitoring communitywide goals based on our shared vision statement. Wilson 20/20 has matured and is now tackling the difficult challenge of workforce development in a large segment of the community needing skills to transition from traditional agriculture to an industrial/knowledge-based economy.

The Role of Serendipity

A serendipitous juxtaposition of master planning took place when the city of Wilson began its “2030 Comprehensive Planning” at the same time that Barton was engaged in campus master planning. Because of the strong working relationship we had developed, the city and college quickly agreed that our two consultants should work together on issues of mutual interest. One of those issues was the transitional neighborhood that lies between the college and downtown Wilson.

Community members of the Wilson-Barton Partnership can get an “insider’s view” of the college.

Like so many middle-class neighborhoods across the country, our campus neighborhood has experienced deterioration over decades of socioeconomic change. Like so many colleges that are located in these neighborhoods, the degree of deterioration had begun to directly affect the perception of safety by prospective students and their parents.

This occured despite the fact that police statistics show the campus environs are safer than the parking lots of the city’s newest shopping center. Our collaborative planning effort resulted in the Barton neighborhood being included in the city’s top 12 strategic priorities.

One Way Out

The most obvious disadvantage of the campus neighborhood, other than scattered deteriorated rental housing, was a pair of one-way streets that ran along the edge of the campus.

This pair of streets was a remnant of state highway corridors through Wilson that had been replaced more than a decade ago by a divided four-lane route around the city. One-way streets are frequently associated with deteriorating neighborhoods, and that association was clearly evident in the Barton neighborhood. A survey of our students revealed that their highest concern was the speed of the traffic on the one-way streets.

Their concern was real. In addition to the risks students faced as they tried to pull into speeding traffic, research documents how perpetrators use one-way streets. One-way streets provide easy access to campus, giving opportunities for criminals to enter campus, commit a crime, and escape quickly.

To address this issue, we worked directly with the mayor and city manager, staff in the state transportation and city offices, alumni, donors, and friends. We were most fortunate that former four-term governor Jim Hunt lives in our area, and his support was instrumental in leading to a positive outcome. As I am writing this, I can look out my window and see workers putting the final touches on the reversion of the one-way pair to two-way streets.

Collaboration: A Two-Way Street

Meanwhile, the city of Wilson continued to act on their strategic Barton Neighborhood priority by funding the Preservation of Wilson. This nonprofit organization targets properties in the Old Wilson Mile, a neighborhood between the college and downtown, for purchase, renovation, and re-purposing.
Neighborhood improvement requires time, but changes are already becoming evident across the Barton neighborhood. The college contributes to these changes by utilizing two trustee-approved bank credit lines dedicated to real estate purchases. These lines allow the college to quickly take advantage of opportunities that arise. Gifts of neighborhood properties to the college have also made a difference and given us new options.

The Tourism Authority is also an active partner. Athletic competitions, student recruitment, alumni events, cultural events, and other college functions constantly attract visitors to the city. The tourism board understands this relationship and has supported proposals as diverse as athletic facilities and joint marketing.

When a community-park initiative arose to feature the unique windmill-powered “whirligigs” of a local folk artist, the college stepped up to the plate by sponsoring events to support this initiative. The college shares the community’s belief that the works of Vollis Simpson, whom The New York Times calls “the creator of some of the most recognizable work in the genre of American homemade art,” will enhance Wilson’s visibility. Installations and exhibits in Baltimore, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Albuquerque of this outsider folk artist underline the increasing appreciation of his work.

Secure in the Neighborhood

Our relationship with the Wilson Police Department continues to develop. The police sergeant who is in charge of campus security also teaches criminal justice as an adjunct faculty member. The officers who patrol the campus work out of a campus-based office and are well-versed in student affairs policies and priorities. Officers and student affairs staff work as partners, and police officers are treated by our students as members of our campus community.

A key real estate victory emerged from this constructive working relationship. The college purchased a deteriorated tattoo parlor adjacent to the campus and converted it into a satellite division office and conference facility for the Wilson Police Department. The fact that this new facility is adjacent to a problematic convenience store on the edge of our campus is one among many of our deliberate security steps.

A “Poster Child” Goes to School

The revitalization of a neighborhood requires a strong neighborhood school. Through the support of the district superintendent, Barton’s School of Education now partners with the principal of the neighborhood elementary school. Our work as a “collegiate PTA” has secured a six-figure foundation supporting gift. A secure neighborhood, a strong school, and financial investment are basic for neighborhood revitalization.

Unintended consequences can be good. Our 45-second basketball sensation propelled and accelerated the partnerships we were already developing with our community. What’s next? We are working with film industry representatives who have shown interest in telling our “45-second story.” Meanwhile, our partnership with Wilson continues to grow.

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