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Community colleges play a key role in urban rebirth

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Lane Community College’s downtown campus helped spur redevelopment in Eugene, Ore.

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The commercial center of Eugene, Ore., had been in decline for many years. The population was shrinking, and there were many large empty stores that had been vacant since a suburban mall was built in the 1970s.

“There were concerns that it wasn’t safe. It was pretty dead,” recalled Lane Community College (LCC) President Mary Spilde.

All that has changed since LCC opened a new downtown campus, spurring reinvestment in the neighborhood. Similar community college/city partnerships have boosted reinvestment in aging downtowns across the country.

Sharing a vision

LCC had initially planned to use $9 million in bond funds to restore its old downtown campus, which was housed in a former Montgomery Ward store. But the city manager called Spilde to suggest the college and city partner in building a new downtown campus as a catalyst for revitaliziation.

“From that phone call, we started to develop a vision and brought in community partners,” said Spilde, a former chair of the American Association of Community Colleges' board of directors.

LCC built the new campus on an abandoned construction site, an eyesore known as the “Sears pit,” which had been slated for an earlier redevelopment project, but a deal to build a new Sears store there fell through.

The city of Eugene sold to LCC an entire city block for $1, plus it provided the college an additional $8 million to develop the campus. Additional funding came from the state, federal tax credits, stimulus funding, energy tax credits and other sources.

“We parlayed that original $9 million into $53 million,” Spilde said, which funded a new academic building and student housing.

A local draw 

The 94,000-square-foot instructional building, which opened in January, houses LCC’s energy management program, English as a second language and adult-based education programs, continuing education, small business development, employee training facilities, and a bookstore. And it's sustainable.

"The new campus has completely turned around the downtown,” Spilde said. “We’re seeing many empty storefronts being revitalized. Once we made the commitment, the private sector began to reinvest.”

Vacant storefronts are being refurbished, new small businesses and restaurants are moving in and more housing projects are planned.

“I was downtown last night, and there were a lot of people hanging out; not just young people, but families, too,” Spilde said. “There’s more of a sense of community.”

“We‘re only as healthy as our community,” she added. “We depend on the community for our tax base. We‘re part of this bigger system, and our students depend on the community for jobs. There’s a huge ripple effect.”

Revitalized riverfront

In Illinois, a new campus for Waubonsee Community College (WCC) is bringing new investment to downtown Aurora. WCC shut down its old downtown campus and built a new, 132,000-square-foot facility on the shore of the Fox River, which fits in with the city’s efforts to revitalize the riverfront.

The college purchased the building site, and the city conveyed a strip of parkland along the river for $1. The college developed a “river walk” with a bike trail, some short-term parking, native plantings and a private access road for dropping off students. 

Since the new campus opened two years ago, it’s been embraced by students and the community, said Jeff Noblit, executive director of marketing and communications at WCC and chair of Aurora Downtown, a nonprofit organization aimed at revitalizing the city’s commercial center.

"It’s really exceeded our expectations,” he said.

The block-long, four-story building is "comprehensive," meaning students can take care of all of their needs there without having to go to one of WCC's three other campuses. The facility houses registration, admissions, counseling, tutoring, financial aid, an assessment center, library, café and child care services. 

There are plenty of conference rooms at the new campus that local business groups can rent for a nominal fee. When WCC uses the downtown campus to host meetings for public officials and business leaders, “it helps us raise awareness of all the positive things going on at the college and downtown,” Noblit said.

The new campus “offers Aurorans a wealth of opportunities,” added WCC President Christine Sobek. “No matter where you’re starting on the ladder to education success, this campus provides the knowledge and support to meet your goals.”

A renewed interest

The impact of the WCC campus is beginning to be felt in the surrounding community. There are still some empty storefronts, but vacancies are decreasing, Noblit said.

“The stream of students walking to campus every day has brought vibrancy and excitement to downtown,” and several new businesses, including two pizza restaurants.

“In terms of economic impact, few things make as much difference to the success of a city as a well-educated population,” said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner. “Waubonsee’s new downtown campus not only increases our city’s marketability by increasing the education of our workforce, but the campus itself is also an economic beacon, showing the vitality of downtown Aurora to future investors and entrepreneurs.”

There have also been some concrete benefits for WCC. Compared to the college’s old downtown campus, the new facility has a 30 percent increase in headcount and a 161 percent increase in credit hours.

Focused on the arts

The commercial center of Manchester, Conn., was already in a state of decline when a local bank was taken over by the larger First Niagara Bank, resulting in the an empty building and the loss of 100 jobs. Town leaders wanted to revitalize downtown, and Manchester Community College President Gena Glickman wanted to expand the college’s presence downtown.

“This was the perfect opportunity,” she said.

So when market research showed a focus on the arts had the potential to transform Manchester, MCC joined with town leaders and other partners to convert the old bank building into an arts and education center. Niagara donated the building to the college and provided an additional $500,000 to get the project started. The town leased the ground floor to the MCC Foundation, which raised $1.5 million from the Dehn Foundation, Greater Hartford Arts Council, First Niagara Foundation and other donors.

MCC on Main opened a year ago. The first floor has an art gallery, entrepreneurship center and classroom, and meeting spaces. There is also a small café operated in a partnership with a local Italian market and bakery. On the second floor, the town rented space to a state-funded adult basic education program and created a cooperative work area that can serve 12 small start-ups, which Glickman calls “a nice synergy with the entrepreneurship activities on the first floor.”

The gallery has already hosted an art show featuring works by students and another with faculty art. It also stages music performances, urban storytellers and programs for children. MCC has rented the gallery space for business meetings and baby showers and has raised more money from the sale of art and memberships.  

“Our facility was the catalyst for revitalization,” said Glickman, noting that a craft gallery and several restaurants and stores have opened nearby.

“The college is no longer seen as just a place that offers degrees but is now really integrated into the community,” she added. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s really raised the college’s visibility in the community. That has attracted more interest from philanthropists.”

Building through a community

Spilde’s advice for other colleges contemplating similar projects: Have a strong vision that draws partners. It’s also important to have various financing strategies, she said. LCC always had a fall-back position. If something didn’t work out, the college could rein it back and do something less ambitious, if necessary.

“Be inclusive,” Spilde added. “We were proactive in bringing neighborhood associations in. That helped build a coalition of people who really wanted to make it happen.”

LCC listened to people’s concerns about issues such as transportation and safety and built a plan to address them.

The whole process “created a lot of excitement for the community and for Lane and enhanced our support and image in the community as an economic development partner,” Spilde said.

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