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Observation: Leveraging University Resources for Community Revitalization March 2010

Leveraging University Resources for Community Revitalization

By David J. Wright
Director, Urban and Metropolitan Studies

David Wright

As the Great Recession strains public resources, an idea is traveling fast in higher education — the notion that universities and colleges can fuel revitalization efforts in their communities.

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David J. Wright directs urban/metro and workforce studies for the Institute. This commentary is drawn from a report he recently co-authored with David F. Shaffer, A New Paradigm for Economic Development.

Higher education systems, universities and community colleges across America are stepping up to play a more vigorous role in the life of their home communities. They are well-positioned to catalyze employment, housing, retail and cultural projects that make communities as well as schools better places to study, work and invest.

Ohio State’s Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment and the University of Akron’s University Park Alliance are prime examples, with flexible, university-affiliated nonprofit corporations at each deploying more than $250 million to improve the quality of life where campus and neighboring communities intersect. Their lessons traveled to the University of Memphis, where neighborhood and business leaders have joined in a university-supported community planning effort and in a network of civic groups working to ensure implementation. These efforts are reported to have triggered more than $82 million in privately financed residential and retail development in the area.

University-led revitalization efforts can take an even grander scale, when institutional facilities are used to anchor downtown or regional development. Public officials in Phoenix, for example, were eager to bring life to the moribund downtown area of that rapidly spreading city. Arizona State University, meanwhile, found itself with nowhere to grow in the inner suburb of Tempe. Plans were hatched for a new downtown Phoenix campus, populated by departments that meshed with activities in that area, such as health care, public affairs and communications; with capital expenses borne by the city and operations by the university; and with light rail connecting the old suburban and new downtown campuses.

A city referendum was approved in March 2006 on a $223 million general obligation bond to build the first phase of the new ASU Downtown Phoenix Campus. The new downtown campus now serves over 6,000 students on its way to a build-out enrollment of 15,000. At completion, it will comprise nine buildings with 1,800 faculty and staff, create an estimated 1,300 new jobs, and inject $570 million into the local economy.

Institutions of higher education impact their communities in myriad ways beyond physical development. A growing number of universities and university systems have mounted initiatives to make these points of contact as organized and effective as possible, for benefit of school and community alike. Flowing from older academic traditions like cooperative extension and service-learning, these “university/community engagement” initiatives, as they are known, help solve real-world problems by increasing community access to the expertise of faculty and students who, in turn, gain practical experience outside of the classroom.

For example, under the University of Georgia’s Archway Partnership, Georgia communities identify areas of need and UGA expertise is made available, with administrative support provided by local government. Partnership projects typically concern land use or public services, and involve UGA, community organizations, school districts, and local and state government agencies.

At Michigan State, community engagement efforts include University-Community Partnerships, which links faculty teams with community groups to work on issues of mutual interest, disseminates research and evaluation findings, and provides community services including program evaluation, training and organizational development. MSU’s Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement provides over 9,000 student volunteers for community activities. The Center for Community and Economic Development supports problem-solving strategies to improve the quality of life in communities throughout Michigan and assists industries and communities to generate high-skill, high-wage jobs.

The University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center combines research and public engagement, and is dedicated to developing long-term sustainable partnerships. The university purchased a 21,000-square-foot shopping plaza as the operating facility for the center, with many community partners housed in the renovated space. The California State University set up a new Center for Community Engagement in the Chancellor’s Office in 2008, in order to support leaders of campus offices in institutionalizing and elevating the role of community engagement. Central and campus offices have increased visibility internally and with community organizations who increasingly seek out CSU to partner and convene events.

Several university-community projects have sprung up with a particular focus on developing new and lasting partnerships to improve education. One of the most notable is “Strive,” a “holistic” approach launched in 2006 by the University of Cincinnati that supports students all the way from birth to career. Strive brings together nonprofit, business and governmental education in a partnership; connects institutions from preschool through college; and provides a roadmap that seeks to lead every student in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region on a path towards a college degree. Over a span of four years, UC's efforts increased enrollment of Cincinnati Public School students at the University of Cincinnati by 28 percent.

When fiscal resources are strained, it makes sense to invest in functions that have multiple payoffs: universities are not only creating better educated citizens but are also building stronger communities and local economies. Those are results that pay off not just for the community, but for the university itself. As the example continues to travel, we can expect to see more institutions going for that kind of win-win.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.