The Evolving Role of Universities in Community Economic Development

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Source: UNC-Greensboro Community Development

The role and power of universities in regional economic development is well documented. Research from UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning suggests that American research universities engaging in economic development missions have directly and positively influenced their surrounding regional economies. Similar results have been documented in Western Europe and throughout the developing world, where literature points to universities as a pivotal tool in catalyzing economic growth. In North Carolina, the UNC system actively promotes its 17 campuses as engines of economic development, committing broadly to a mission of entrepreneurship while outlining the targeted economic development strategies of each school.

While a great deal of policy and academic efforts have focused on the regional effects of university engagement, very little discussion has focused on the economic role of universities at the municipal and neighborhood levels, where their direct roles in placemaking, community identity, and capital investment are critically important. As colleges and universities across the country expand in response to growing enrollment, the expansion of their footprints often has dramatic effects on their surrounding neighborhoods and built environments.

In a previous blog post, UNC School of Government faculty member Jonathan Morgan specifically outlines four roles universities serve in the economic development process, including three that directly impact local economies. While colleges and universities have the unique role of educational output, contributing human capital directly to the growing knowledge economy, they also consume goods and services, advise local industries and business leaders, and anchor local revitalization efforts. Importantly, this final point has become increasingly relevant for central city campuses, as urban areas continue to experience unprecedented growth.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, the rapid expansion of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has resulted in not only a larger campus, satisfying growing demand, but has shifted the surrounding neighborhood context. Previously constrained on its southern border by the highly travelled Gate City Boulevard, the campus community spilled largely into the neighboring College Hill and Lindley Park neighborhoods to its east and west. However, beginning in 2009, as the university looked to expand, the high price of real estate and densely developed nature of these neighborhoods directed their attention south, across Gate City Boulevard, and into the Glenwood neighborhood, an area made up primarily of working class families and lower property values.

In 2012, following a lengthy public engagement process, as well as continuous involvement from the City of Greensboro and local neighborhood associations, the university broke ground on the mixed-use Spartan Village project on the northern edge of the Glenwood neighborhood. Since then, UNC-Greensboro has rapidly constructed student housing, mixed-use retail and office space, multimodal transportation improvements, a police station, and a recreation center, in essence developing a community on what had previously been vacant and underutilized land. Though community and neighborhood activists have condemned the project, citing the displacement of long-term residents and the disruption of Glenwood’s community fabric as potential outcomes, the effects of UNCG’s expansion into the Glenwood neighborhood are yet to be truly known.

Importantly, while the expansion of the university in general is not necessarily surprising, the role of the university as a commercial real estate developer is relatively novel. Rather than a traditional student-oriented project, one characterized purely by student housing and dining, UNCG sought to expand the scope of its development to include market-sustainable and publicly oriented commercial development.

In preparation for Spartan Village, UNC-Greensboro commissioned a retail development analysis through HR&A Advisors, which analyzed the surrounding market and found a potential unmet demand of 55,000 square feet of retail space in the immediate area. Engagement with Glenwood residents as well as UNC-Greensboro students indicated that both groups would be willing to walk to the new development and that both expressed interest in more local dining options. As of 2018, the commercial portions of the mixed-use development have been occupied by a diverse group of retailers, including several restaurants, a barber, a credit union, and a local grocery store.

While certainly a form of economic development, the Spartan Village project is vastly different than the regional impacts referenced above. In their book The University as Urban Developer, Perry and Wiewel (2005), discuss the emerging trend of university real estate development, the relative lack of corresponding research, and the potential implications for neighborhood and urban revitalization. Their work concludes by stating that large-scale university developments produce positive economic results in surrounding neighborhoods, yet it cautions that these efforts must be undertaken with a long-term and collaborative community engagement process in order to be successful.

In North Carolina, universities across the state are engaging in similar commercial development, becoming key players in urban revitalization. Plans published by Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, and North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus suggest the trend is only expected to continue.

Matthew Hutton is a dual Master’s degree candidate in the Master of Public Administration and the Master of City & Regional Planning programs at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.



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