President's Report Masthead
December 31, 2014

Pride in place: Series focuses on college towns

When Best College Reviews ranked Binghamton as the 28th best college town in the country in 2014, it came as a surprise to many, but brought attention to something community leaders have been working toward: elevating local pride and making Binghamton a true college town through strategic planning.

SUNY Business and Education Cooperative of the Southern Tier (SUNYBEST) brings together University and community resources to address economic development opportunities and challenges and was already focused on developing “pride in place.” To bring attention to these issues, it sponsored a three-part series this fall on college towns and their impact on communities.

Jeff Smith, a retired NYSEG executive with economic development experience, said the series came out of focus groups held last spring with SUNY Broome President Kevin Drumm and a number of volunteers. “The college town concept was something that was being written about and Kevin had some expertise in it. He did lot of personal research and even toured Binghamton with the perspective of a college town.”

Binghamton University and SUNY Broome are growing and the community is changing, whether people realize it or not, said Tom Kowalik, executive director of the University’s Center for Innovative and Continuing Education and SUNYBEST catalyst. “Some do not, and some are embracing it without strategic thought, so we have to bring them together to think about this strategically and leverage it to improve. We beat ourselves up and are often so negative about what we have here. Other communities don’t do that when they have nothing, yet we do and we have lots to be proud of here.”

The college town series was good fodder for SUNYBEST, said Jim Baumgartner, a retired healthcare executive with strong experience in strategic planning and marketing research. “It all comes back to businesses wanting trained people and people wanting jobs. After earning an education, some of these people want to stay here and we want to build a theme around that. Strategically, our lives could be much better if we focus on how to retain students, how to make things better.”

The series kicked off with Drumm presenting “College Towns: Boston, Berkeley…Binghamton?”

The next two sessions, “Binghamton University and its impact on the community” and “Cornell University and Town/Gown Partnerships,” were presented by Binghamton University’s Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Rose and Assistant Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Partnerships Per Stromhaug, and John Gutenberger, senior advisor to the Office of Community Relations at Cornell, respectively. See Rose’s PowerPoint online. See Stromhaug’s PowerPoint online.

Drumm’s college-town research looked at the characteristics of top ones based on studies done by an architecture journal on small- to medium-sized cities. “They paid attention to waterfronts, historic buildings, downtown retail and accessible suburban retail,” he said. “The cities tended to be state capitals and have good pedestrian and bike access, good infrastructure linkages between colleges and downtowns, and public transportation is a key thing. Some had a college in the downtown or within three miles. They talked about the colleges and towns working together intentionally to improve life in the area.”

“Kevin kicked this series off beautifully,” Kowalik said. “You could feel and see a difference in the posture of the people there. They were thinking, ‘Really, we’re good?’ We can leverage this to change the community. Better transit, walkways, renovating buildings.”

Binghamton already has a number of characteristics to build upon to make it a true college town where graduates will want to remain, said Drumm. “We have a couple of historic places, a courthouse and county library, the Security Mutual Building and a rehabilitated Chenango Place. We have new restaurants and the riverfront has a lot of character. We’re moving in the right direction.”

“We have a lot of sports and culture for a community our size,” Smith added. “The culture and sporting are pretty spectacular. First Friday is growing. ”

“Particularly our music venues,” Drumm said. “Our opera and symphony are quite extraordinary.”

“One theme we found is we don’t tell our story very well,” Smith said. “And we need to digest that in a way where we can market ourselves. A group like this can help call attention to it. We have a lot of talent in this community and just need a process to bring it forward.”

“Nothing breeds success like success,” Baumgartner said. “We have to tell people good things are happening. In fact there are a lot of good things happening here and as we make them better, confidence will rise. We have a crisis of confidence.”

Plus, some issues still need to be addressed, Drumm said. “Parking is always an issue for any small city, but college towns seem to have solved it. There’s also public transportation to look at.”

“Among the attributes that have contributed to the economic success and resiliency of college towns are a high degree of connectivity between university campuses, business districts and residential areas and the success they have had retaining university graduates in the community,” said Rose. “That connectivity comes less from car connections and more from walkable environments, active recreational opportunities and strong public transit. Pedestrian and transit infrastructure facilitate the kind of serendipitous encounters that create more economic creativity. 

“Moreover, connectivity and retention of graduates appear interrelated as the generation we call Millennials places a higher value on being able to move around its community easily and without necessarily being dependent on driving,” Rose added. “What all that means is we should pay particular attention to creating transit and bike- and pedestrian-friendly links between our higher education institutions and downtown.” 

“This series was important because it allowed us to educate people that a lot of good things are happening and are being recognized by people outside of the area and state,” Kowalik said. “We’re now more broadly defined as a community.”

But there are tasks ahead. “We have follow up to do,” said Smith. “Where do we go from here? We’re in the throes of developing a marketing study and brainstorming ideas for four different markets including students and their families and how to increase flow into downtown Binghamton. The Southern Tier High Technology Incubator and SUNY Broome Library will both help.”

“We’ve introduced the topic and planted the seed,” said Kowalik. “We hope other people will pick things up and implement them. The University and SUNY Broome can’t do this alone, so we hope the community will step up. That’s why we’re trying to bring the community into it.”

One thing we hope to see is focused political attention on parking, Drumm added. “We need to keep pressure on public transportation and continued economic development in a strategic way. And the waterfront needs strategic attention. These are the kind of areas where we hope there would be more strategic effort, where we look for dollars and set priorities for urban planning and tie it in with the college-town concept.”

“Today’s college graduates face tough economic circumstances and are leaving college with more debt, yet they remain very optimistic about their economic future,” Rose said. “Their presence in a city is a strong indicator of economic resilience, so keeping our graduates in Binghamton depends in part upon the availability of jobs, but also upon the lesson we’ve learned from college towns elsewhere:b Millennials will stay and attempt to make their way if they find the city environment supportive of their desired lifestyle. That means safe, walkable environments, good recreational amenities and night life, and the ability to move around between home, work and fun without having to own a car, a choice Millennials make for both lifestyle and economic reasons.”

“The college-town concept can be something that students, faculty and staff can help accelerate by providing their ideas,” Smith said. “What do parents want to do when they visit? How can we better involve students as interns for and profits and non-profits?”

“We’re not successful like Ithaca is in promotions, like through Ithaca promoter Dan Smalls. I lust after that attention,” said Baumgartner. “It’s a beehive of activity that we don’t have here. Take the events that do happen like the Dick’s Open. Thousands and thousands of people show up. If you build it they will come.

“I was recently having my car serviced and picked up a Condé Nast Traveler magazine,” Baumgartner added. “It had an article that said ‘The West’s best-kept secret, former Idahoan returns to Boise and discovers a thriving city.’ Why would anyone go to Boise? This is the headline I want for Binghamton.”