Mending Fences

RELATIONS BETWEEN Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University and its neighboring community of Lewisburg had deteriorated so significantly in 1998 that when a series of student parties in the off-campus housing district between the campus and the downtown business area got out of control, local law enforcement threatened swift and immediate action. Hundreds of students responded by blocking the streets of Lewisburg, later tagged by the media as the “Bucknell Riot.”

The response on both sides underscored the growing lack of trust between the campus and the community. However, the riot triggered important conversations between both parties, which ultimately resulted in decisions to relocate important University assets into the community rather than keeping them on campus. Ultimately, the riot forced the University and the community to become more attentive to the concerns of each other.

Lewisburg is an older small town in a rural area of the northern Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania. Bucknell is a small, private University. While not always understood by each other, the University and the community had a very symbiotic relationship. But it wasn’t until these forces converged and important leadership emerged that conversation started between Bucknell, Lewisburg, and the business community. And while these conversations between the University and the community had been ongoing for a number of years, the real momentum was created in 2007 when Bucknell secured state funding to support its community efforts.

Of course, there are good models for college/community collaboratives: Penn (The University of Pennsylvania) in West Philadelphia and the University of Rochester’s riverfront renewal efforts in Rochester, NY, are but two examples. But the difference with Bucknell and Lewisburg was in scale. Bucknell has 3,600 students and 1,200 employees. Lewisburg is a community of slightly more than 7,000 residents. There were several challenges facing this collaboration, including identifying projects that served both the University and the community’s interests, and avoiding the appearance that the University was attempting to dominate the community. The most significant challenge was that there were no ready models for universitycommunity collaborations on the small scale of Lewisburg and Bucknell.

Proposing a Plan for Collaboration

After substantial internal discussions, the University’s administration ultimately proposed a plan focusing largely on facilities already under University ownership along the commercial corridor. This “bookend” approach envisioned using strategic assets of the University to anchor the downtown business district while positively impacting people, programs, and facilities on Bucknell’s campus.

The Bucknell Board of Trustees approved this approach, which came to be known as the Lewisburg Core Community Initiative, provided that these efforts did not interfere with plans for new facilities on campus or require an inordinate amount of University funds.

In 2007, we led a delegation that included local government officials and community representatives, as well as the University leadership, to a meeting with state officials, including the governor. At this meeting a vision for the community was presented. Bucknell would develop a number of facilities that would anchor the historic downtown area of Lewisburg. This could include relocating the University Bookstore into the downtown, developing a Bucknell Inn, and establishing a University Art Gallery adjacent to a historic movie theater. In addition, Bucknell would relocate some of its business operations to the downtown to increase foot traffic. The state officials embraced the project, agreeing to provide $12.5M in state grants to support the effort, contingent on the development of more refined plans.

As those internal discussions continued, it became clear that construction of a structured parking lot in conjunction with the proposed Campus Inn would require a substantial commitment of University funds, just as the stock market collapsed in 2008. Consequently, that project was dropped and the focus shifted to four other projects, all in the downtown corridor: The campus bookstore, the campus theatre, an administrative office building, and a small business incubator. These four projects would ultimately require an investment of more than $26M into a community of 7,000 residents. State funds, federal tax credits, and the Radnor Property Group’s private capital supplemented Bucknell’s investment.

Moving Forward Through Transformation

Today, these four projects have transformed Lewisburg and Bucknell, in part by triggering other projects. The Lewisburg Neighborhoods Corporation has secured federal grant funding to remove student rental properties in a flood-prone area between campus and downtown. A private developer is planning to renovate and replace other student rental properties in that corridor with more upscale properties. The state has planning improvements to the Route 15 Corridor, which bisects both the campus and the town. And recently, local officials dedicated a 12-mile rail trail with a terminus near the downtown.

The Core Community projects are receiving attention across Pennsylvania. The bookstore, for example, won recognition from both the Pennsylvania Section of the American Institute of Architects and 10,000 Friends, a statewide smart growth association.

The basic, underlying premise in these projects was that the University could use some of its strategic assets to revitalize the core of Lewisburg’s downtown. Bucknell recognized that a dynamic commercial core makes it easier for the University to attract students, faculty, and administrative staff.

Bucknell’s strategy has improved the business climate downtown and increased tax payments to Lewisburg. Downtown businesspeople are almost uniformly extolling these ventures.

Lessons Learned

What, then, are the lessons that can be taken from the Bucknell Lewisburg Project?

  1. Scale shouldn’t be an inhibiting factor. The University of Pennsylvania had been a model for Pennsylvania institutions pursuing community development collaboratives. But Penn’s size and location is significantly different from most colleges and universities. If it can be done in Lewisburg and at Bucknell, it can be done anywhere.
  2. Visionary leadership is required. Institutions that have created successful community development partnerships have visionary leadership within the university and clear, strong support from the political and economic leadership of the community.
  3. Partnerships are vital. While a college might be able to do it alone, community initiatives won’t be as effective without active community partners. It was vitally important for the business community and the local government officials to support Bucknell’s initiatives. The partnership helped to diffuse concerns about the University dominating the town.
  4. Identify and capitalize on existing assets. In each project, Bucknell used an asset that could easily have remained on campus: its bookstore, a performing arts venue, administrative offices, and a small business support network. These assets served a broader community good by being located in the core business district, in a way that enhanced other businesses and made these resources available to a broader audience. In each case, the facility that was used for these projects was an underutilized building that was recycled.
  5. Think comprehensively, grow incrementally, and be prepared to alter your planning priorities. Have a broad vision, but understand that community development doesn’t occur overnight. Bucknell had to adapt and change its plans several times based on external factors. Even the first projects needed to be developed in phases, but there remained a clear underlying vision about what the ultimate goal should be. Transformation is ongoing, iterative, and evolutionary.
  6. Emphasize quality. The bookstore project has won several awards because of the quality of its historic renovation while creating a wonderful retail gathering space for the neighborhood and region. The renovation of the campus theatre is continuing the momentum and the creative buzz. The community recognizes and values the commitment to quality.
  7. Don’t rule out using a private developer as a partner. Private developers bring fresh ideas, creativity, perspective, entrepreneurialism, talent, and private capital. There was strong resistance by Bucknell to using a private developer. In the end, the University leveraged the developer’s talent and capital to realize its vision. Bucknell realized a better result because it used the private developer. Radnor’s involvement in the projects precipitated healthy, dynamic discussions on programming, design, financing, and construction, forcing everyone to think outside of the box.
  8. Do something. Bucknell had been debating doing something downtown, but nothing happened. Pursuing outside funding forced the University to focus its planning. And strong visionary leadership moved the process along. But the logjam was broken when the University finally realized it had to do something with the state funds or lose them. The bookstore project signaled that Bucknell was serious about downtown development, making the projects that followed easier to initiate and for the community to accept.
  9. Embrace change. The biggest obstacle to the Bucknell Lewisburg Community Development efforts was the status quo: A community that was generally comfortable with how it looked and a University that saw no compelling reason to do something different from what it had been doing for generations. Investing in the downtown, pursuing third-party financing, and using a private developer were all new territory for Bucknell. It is to Bucknell’s credit that, in this instance, it chose to do something different. In the end, Bucknell opted to imagine the possible. And it made all the difference.