Economic Development through Higher Education Downtown

About the Author

Marcia Perritt

Bulldogs, Quakers, Titans, Lions, Spartans, Panthers, a Phoenix, even Belles. Guilford County is home to a menagerie of mascots representing various institutions of higher education, but only one, the aptly named Phoenix belonging to Elon University, has a physical presence in downtown Greensboro. When Elon University School of Law moved into the former public downtown library building in 2006, the city center saw an influx of 311 law students, 27 faculty members, and countless other visitors to the school. A critical mass of students can act as a driver for economic development in downtowns, injecting vibrancy into otherwise sparsely populated streets, patronizing retail and service businesses, and stimulating development in adjacent areas.

The City of Greensboro, like many other North Carolina towns, has seen a decline in its textile and manufacturing industries, and is now moving towards a knowledge-based economy. According to Downtown Greensboro Incorporated, Greensboro’s colleges and universities employ 7% of the city’s population, paying a median salary that is 25% above the city’s average. Moreover, these colleges and universities collectively host over 40,000 students each year and are projecting more growth in the coming years. The city recognizes that this is an opportunity for economic growth that can benefit both institutes of higher education and downtown Greensboro. The city’s 2010 Downtown Greensboro Economic Investment Strategy seeks to build on Elon’s success by encouraging more colleges and universities to locate their operations downtown. The city has identified seven potential development sites in downtown and has formed a Higher Education Working Group, a multi-sector stakeholder group that meets bi-monthly and includes representatives from the public sector, colleges and universities, and key business leaders. The Working Group is “discussing joint marketing efforts and the creation of an ‘education district’ in downtown Greensboro.

The notion that an institute of higher education could locate downtown isn’t just for big cities and four year colleges – smaller towns can (and do) pursue this strategy as well. North Carolina’s Community College System, the third largest in the country, has seen unprecedented growth in the past few years. With an enrollment of 850,000 students, 1 in 8 North Carolinians were enrolled in classes at one of the state’s 58 community colleges in 2010. College campuses tend to be located in suburban areas outside of town centers for a variety of reasons: more room for parking, cheaper land and more of it, making future expansion a possibility. Yet, many small towns offer tremendous opportunities for redevelopment in their downtowns that present numerous advantages – large, historic buildings that are currently underutilized, affordable housing for students within walking distance of town centers, broadband access, and existing infrastructure for water and sewer.

Some small towns have already recognized this opportunity for economic development and have partnered with local colleges to bring facilities into downtown. In Siler City, NC, for example, Central Carolina Community College’s Professional Arts and Crafts Program in clay and metal sculpture as well as its innovative arts-based small business incubator are housed in a total of seven historic downtown buildings. This effort was a result of a partnership between the town, the college, and the NC Rural Center.  Also in North Carolina, the Town of Wadesboro partnered with South Piedmont Community College to renovate an abandoned textile mill to house a business incubator, training facility, and public meeting space. The renovation was largely supported by a private fundraising campaign. These examples demonstrate that higher education can be a catalyst for downtown economic development. As small towns contemplate the reuse of vacant downtown buildings, they should move beyond the usual suspects and consider their local colleges and universities – they just might find their own Phoenix.

Marcia Perritt, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a joint master’s degree in Public Health and City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.

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