Strength in Numbers
Three higher education institutions play a vital role in the city planning efforts of the Springfield, Missouri, greater metro area.
By Karla Hignite
Springfield, Missouri, has a lot of gown in its town. Nearly one in 10 people residing in the greater metro area is enrolled in one of three higher education institutions in the area, notes Raymond "Rusty" Worley, a former chief business officer at Springfield's Drury University. Worley now serves as executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, a nonprofit community development corporation providing programs and services to preserve and strengthen the economic vitality of Springfield's center city and its three distinctive historic business districts. See also "More Than Good Neighbors" in the May 2013 issue of Business Officer magazine.
During the past decade in particular, an influx of investment has created new momentum for the city through a variety of collaborative partnerships among the private sector, government agencies and civic groups, and nonprofit organizations, including strong leadership from Missouri State University, Drury University, and Ozarks Technical Community College. Combined, the institutions account for 40,000 students among a population of 400,000 in Springfield's greater metro area.
Together these three institutions are playing a vital role in city planning efforts, notes Worley. "In our case, because of the strong collaborative approach we've built over time, we've been able to leverage funds to partner with private developers on redevelopment of historic and abandoned properties. We've also been able to achieve significant streetscape projects to bring commerce back downtown and to secure enhancement grants, including FEMA funding to develop new arenas at Missouri State and Drury University to serve as emergency shelters for our community."
While each institution provides a unique presence, effort is still required to ensure no turf issues emerge, notes Worley. "In some instances, higher education institutions can become the 800-pound gorilla in the room if they are perceived to have a domineering effect over a community's planning efforts," says Worley. It's important to elevate the conversation to focus on building a better community for everyone. Trust can form—and progress can be made—only when you begin to look at common priorities. "For institutions that are designed for perpetuity, leaders must consider the concerns that go beyond their campus doorstep and beyond current-year budgets."
Missouri State began significant expansion into Springfield's downtown in the 1990s, prompted by constrained borders to the south and east of its main campus. Renovation of vacant and underutilized buildings provided space for an alumni center and a center for continuing education. Among the university's more recent collaborations is a multiuse urban research park bringing together an eclectic mix of corporations and nonprofit groups as well as retail and residential space to revitalize Springfield's downtown district.
The 88-acre IDEA (Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Art) Commons is home to the university's Jordan Valley Innovation Center, which carries a special focus on applied research with emphasis on biomaterials, nanotechnology, carbon-based electronics, biomedical instrument development, and energy. The university's art and design programs have space at this site and have helped attract a major advertising firm, providing opportunities for student interaction. The Jordan Valley Community Health Center also has a presence in the IDEA Commons, along with a new state highway regional crime lab.
Drury University has likewise nurtured a collaborative relationship with its host city. Earlier sometimes-contentious relations with surrounding neighbors concerned about university encroachment has given way to the Drury/Midtown Neighborhood Partnership Agreement, a formalized process to engage all stakeholders in discussions about everything from parking and zoning issues to neighborhood renovation. Among the initiatives to emerge from the partnership is a loan program to encourage Drury employees to purchase homes in historic Midtown.
In addition to rehabilitating a number of residential properties, the university purchased a local high school stadium that was virtually crumbling and made extensive renovations to turn it into a multipurpose facility supporting track and field, football, and soccer. The stadium is now jointly run by Drury and Central High School and enjoys 24/7 use. The university also purchased a historic church adjacent to Drury's campus, which the congregation had long outgrown, and traded that space for a larger church property the college had acquired. The trade provided space for Drury's new science center. To address the concerns of congregants about the preservation of the historic structure, Drury reconstructed the church brick by brick across the street and dedicated the space to house the university's diversity center.
For its expansion efforts, several years ago the university worked with Urban Districts Alliance to establish a storefront presence on Commercial Street, which was in early stages of revitalization. In 2011, Drury launched an education and outreach center—Drury on C Street—which provides a number of experiential learning opportunities for students. These include a business resource center that gives students an opportunity to provide consulting to local businesses and organizations on everything from marketing and social media to Web site design and accounting. Arts administration students manage a community art gallery and facilitate music and art classes for special needs children.
OTC, established by Springfield and 13 surrounding public school districts, opened its doors in 1990. A relative newcomer to the area, OTC is one of the fastest growing community colleges in the country, currently serving 14,000 students. Among its community revitalization efforts, the college helped preserve a historic downtown theatre that had languished for decades, moving its fine arts center to take residence of a portion of the building and hosting several productions each year along with monthly art exhibits.
KARLA HIGNITE, Middletown, Rhode Island, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.