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Downtowns Benefit From City-College Connections

April 4, 2014
Point University relocated its main camput to downtown West Point.

With several studies and real life experiences showing that young people want to be near amenities like restaurants, shops and recreational facilities, cities and colleges are reaping the benefits of connection and collaboration.
 
Critical to downtown West Point’s continued growth is the location of Point University’s main campus in vacant and underutilized buildings downtown. Among its redevelopment activities, the university purchased and renovated the former West Point Pepperell building downtown.
 
“Point University is a corner stone of downtown, allowing faculty and students to be a part of our community,” said West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson. “Our businesses and our entire community are enjoying the positive impact of our growing economy.”
 
Carlee Schulte, director of Milledgeville Main Street, noted that the city has two institutions of higher learning on either side of downtown: Georgia College and State University and Georgia Military College.
 
“The economics that the students, faculty and staff bring is vital to our downtown,” Schulte said. “They eat in our downtown restaurants and support our downtown areas.”
 
Milledgeville’s partnerships with its colleges have proved to be mutually beneficial in a variety of ways.
 
“We have partnered with different groups and organization within the college to help host events for the downtown area,” Schulte said. “Students have volunteered to help with downtown initiatives and we allow students to promote activities downtown that they have going on. We have utilized the college space and some of their meeting rooms to host visitors.”
 
Georgia College and State University renovted the historic Campus Theatre in downtown Milledgeville.
 
In 2010, Georgia College and State University purchased and renovated the historic downtown Milledgeville movie house “Campus Theatre” and added it to its roster of working facilities as part of the colleges’ effort to strengthen its ties with the community.
 
“That was a $5 million project and a sensitive rehab,” Schulte said. “It played a significant role in the redevelopment of downtown Milledgeville.”
 
In Macon, the city’s partnership with Mercer University has transformed the College Hill corridor, a neighborhood between Mercer’s campus and downtown Macon. In 2006, a group of Mercer seniors contacted Mercer University President Bill Underwood and the city about their desire to work on a plan to revitalize the 2-mile corridor between Mercer and downtown Macon—an area where students didn’t feel safe and where the neighborhood was in disrepair.
 
Today, Underwood says it is amazing what has been accomplished in College Hill.
 
A family in front of their historic College Hill home in Macon. The house had previously been vacant and in extreme disrepair. Mercer University provided the family with down payment assistance.
 
“There has been nearly $80 million in private investment in the corridor much of it inspired by private investors seeing the potential set out in the master plan and investing their resources,” Underwood explained in a recent GMA Civic Strategies podcast. “Where there used to be abandoned parking lots you see new mixed use retail residential districts. There hadn’t been any new business created in the district in four years and now you see thriving retail districts that are full of bars and restaurants and other kinds of shops, most of which cater to creative and talented young people. In terms of neighborhood revitalization, we have taken a neighborhood adjacent to our campus that was one of the most dilapidated neighborhoods in town and now it is one of the hottest housing markets in Georgia.”
 
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver also sees the potential in collaborating with a university in the city to help spur redevelopment in its mill district, which is located near downtown. He and some fellow Augusta commissioners have asked Georgia Regents University to partner with the city to redevelop the mill district, including possibly turning two historic textile mills into educational and housing space for the university’s campus.
 
“We are focused on the overall district and helping to provide a truly consolidated campus for the university in the urban core,” Copenhaver said. “Georgia Regents University is in the midst of a master planning process to include looking at the mill district. On the city side we recently placed $5.5 million in a SPLOST project that is on the ballot for the May 20 election to be used for land acquisition in the mill district. We have been working closely with the university and they are excited about the potential but no final decision has been made at this point. We fully support Regents University in their master planning process…and we would hope to have a final decision prior to year’s end.”
 
Augusta city officials have asked Regents University to partner with them to redevelop its mill district into a vibrant neighborhood as pictured in this rendering.

Copenhaver said he asked to partner with the university on the proposed redevelopment because he believes the project will help the city and the school.
 
“A truly consolidated campus that creates a sense of place is one of the best ways to grow the student population,” he said. “And one of the greatest benefits to the university and the city is growth in the student population. We have seen it done in other cities like Columbus with Columbus State and Savannah with Savannah College of Art and Design. Growth in the urban core in partnership with the university creates a more vibrant city. I believe we can do the same thing here.”
 
Mercer’s Underwood said colleges and universities can no longer be ivory towers. “We have no choice but to pay attention to the communities in which we exist,” he said. “We succeed as universities to the extent that we are able to attract talented people to our campuses: talented faculty, talented staff and talented students. It is very difficult to be successful in attract-ing talent when you exist in the middle of a decaying city. The more vibrant your surroundings, the more attractive you are going to be.” To that end, Underwood said cities interested in engaging their higher education institutions to help revitalize the city and the downtown have an increasingly easy sell.

“It is a win-win proposition,” he said. “Not only does the city benefit from revitalization it is very clear the university does as well.”