Pushing ahead with eds and meds
Posted November 13, 2012 in Articles
Author: Joe Frolik
In the mid-1980s, officials at Clark University realized that Main South, the aging blue-collar neighborhood at their Worcester, Mass., doorstep, was making it harder to attract and retain top students.
The easy reaction would have been to emulate what so many city institutions had done in the teeth of urban decline: Turn away from the neighbors. Build higher fences. Hire more security officers.
But the late Richard P. Traina, Clark's president at the time, had a different idea. Since the university couldn't follow other stakeholders out of town, he proposed that Clark embrace Main South and try to alter its trajectory. The result was the University Park Partnership, a sustained effort -- now in its third decade -- to stabilize and reinvigorate the neighborhood.
Clark invested money and talent to improve Main South's housing stock, economic development efforts, recreation programs and schools. It's an exercise in "enlightened self-interest" that's benefited both the university and its neighbors, says Jack Foley, who's been involved from the start as Clark's vice president for government and community affairs. Plenty of problems remain -- Main South's recently been hammered by foreclosures and abandonment, notes current Clark President David Angel -- but the campus remains ungated and the school's commitment to the neighborhood is unshaken.
"Anchor institutions can make 30-, 40-, 50-year commitments, because we aren't going anywhere," Angel said Friday in a speech at the annual meeting of University Circle Inc.
American cities, especially those in the older, industrial corridors of the Northeast and Midwest, increasingly are betting on colleges, universities and big research hospitals -- "eds and meds" in the vernacular of economic development professionals -- to drive job creation and prosperity. Across the country, "eds and meds" are responsible for about 5 percent of all jobs; in urban centers, the figure is 11 percent. In 66 of the 100 largest cities, a university or a hospital is the largest employer.
"If you have 'eds and meds,' you have a future," says UCI President Chris Ronayne.
University Circle supplies evidence for Ronayne's thesis. If you count the adjacent Cleveland Clinic, more than 50,000 people will go to work in the Circle today. It is the region's second-largest employment center -- downtown Cleveland is still No. 1 -- and continued to add jobs even during the Great Recession. Thanks to civic visionaries such as Jeptha Wade a century ago, University Circle is home to a concentration of robust anchor institutions, including world-class hospitals, universities and cultural institutions. Their leaders may not see eye to eye on everything, but even a longtime critic such as philanthropist Peter Lewis has come to acknowledge an unprecedented level of collaboration.
Ronayne likens UCI to the glue that holds that collaboration together. The nonprofit, funded largely by contributions from its member organizations, has long provided parking, police and other basic services. More recently, it's helped lead development projects -- including a cluster of townhouses outside the boundaries of University Circle in East Cleveland -- and worked tirelessly to market the Circle as a visitor destination.
"Good work begets more work," says Ronayne.
Organizations akin to UCI can be found in other "anchor districts," too. Often they deliver services that supplement cash-strapped local governments. More and more, the anchor institutions and their community service corporation allies are reaching out to the often-neglected neighborhoods next door.
At UCI's invitation, leaders from anchor districts in Cleveland and nine other cities met here last week to swap tales of what works and what doesn't. With Washington facing a fiscal cliff, federal research dollars and tax credits for urban investments may be under attack. There's a need for a "new playbook," said Eric Johnson, president of Akron's University Park Alliance.
Clark's Angel advised patience and resolve. Clark in 1997 opened what is now considered one of the top urban public high schools in the country: Ninety-nine percent of students graduate; 95 percent go to four-year colleges. The university has become a leader in training talented teachers ready to succeed in challenging classrooms. It's even come to rethink its entire mission: In addition to graduates versed in the liberal arts, Angel said, Clark also now aims to produce a generation of problem-solvers who apprenticed in Main South.
"We've learned that if we work together," Angel said, "we can take on these big, gnarly urban problems in our country."