Last Thursday was the Bowman Breakfast which brings together City residents and City business owners with representatives from the administration and faculty at Kent State University to share breakfast and good conversation. Held twice a year this event is used to break bread, catch up on relevant happenings both on and off campus and to listen to a keynote speaker who generally speaks to issues important to all of us. The Bowman Breakfast typically draws between 250 and 350 people so as you might imagine it’s not always easy to find speakers with something to say to everyone — but last week Dave Dix had a lot to say that was too good to leave in the Legion Hall so here’s the transcript of his speech.
As only a newspaper man can do, Dave Dix didn’t spare any punches but he did it with his typical style, grace and sincerity to see Kent and Kent State be all they can be. He loves this city and he loves the university, and it was evident in his choice of words that he sees Kent’s potential trying to break out of the box that we have built around it and this was his wake up call to lend a hand to bring those walls down.
Although he’s far too diplomatic to say it directly, I kept thinking that what he was saying is we’ve met the enemy and the enemy is us. If we want a better future all we have to do is reach out and grab it, and then all pull like heck because that’s the only way we’ll ever move this mountain forward.
The breakfast was reminiscent of a fireside story with one of our resident tribal elders imparting sage advice mean’t to get our attention and shake us up a little bit so we would see that we’ve got to stop being a hazard to ourselves. Whether we listen and accept his hopes in the spirit that he offered them in is up to us but I have to say I was personally moved by his call to arms and his words will ring in my ears like Jiminy Cricket until we co-create that future for Kent that Dave Dix and all of us are wishing for.
Town and Gown Forever
Speech about engaging Kent State University in improving Kent as college town
March 27, 2008
Town and Gown forever — or as Kent State University goes, so goes Kent
and, to some extent, Portage County too.
I may be exaggerating, but not by much.
With more than 3,000 employees, Kent State is the proverbial 300-pound gorilla of Kent. Only Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna begins to approach it in terms of jobs and yet with its 1,100 employees it remains a distant second.
Kent State University’s annual area expenditures approach $400 million. If the economic multiplier is 2, we’re talking about $800 million flowing into the area economy. Its payroll taxes contribute nearly a third of the payroll tax of the city of Kent.
The University annually brings about 20,000 students to Kent. Of these about 6,000 live on campus in dormitories and another 6,000 in the greater Kent area in apartments that are cash cows and pump money into the local economy. The students may not have large personal incomes, but most have credit cards backed up by Mom and Pop and they buy groceries, gasoline, clothes, movie tickets, alcoholic beverages, pop, snack foods, hamburgers, pizzas —- the list goes on.
Were there no Kent State, the city of Kent would be a shadow of itself and as heavy manufacturing continues to leave town, the University looms ever larger as Kent’s economic future.
When Chamber President Dennis Missimi asked me in January to be the Chamber’s presenter at this Bowman Breakfast, I said I’d do it if I could focus on the town-gown relationship because it is so central to Kent’s future and so important to Portage County’s future.
My game plan has been to talk to figures in leadership positions at Kent State and in Kent city government, to talk to local business leaders, to county officials, to student landlords, to police, to people who’ve known the University and its role in Kent and Portage County and to present a picture of how they see the relationship. I promised everyone I interviewed confidentiality, but did say I would use the content of what they told me to assemble a picture of town-gown relations.
I’ve found that the town-gown relationship involves several categories, most of them very positive plus some challenges and opportunities and I’d like to describe them briefly to you.
Overall, most community leaders I interviewed have very positive feelings about Kent State and appreciate its presence.
“How many communities would die to bring in a business that is a stable employer of 3,000 people, most of them highly educated or highly skilled, that is non-polluting, supports city government and contributes hundred of millions of dollars annually to the local economy,” a prominent Kent attorney said, summing up the feeling of many. Most in Kent and Portage County realize we are indeed fortunate to have a state supported public university in our midst.
We appreciate the collaborative relationships that enrich our lives. Voters in the Kent School District have never turned down an operating levy and although the school district exists in a community whose average income does not match Hudson’s or Aurora’s and whose population has much greater diversity than those two white collar suburbs, the Kent Schools remain stable and excel in many respects and are one of the reasons families choose to live in Kent. It is unlikely that the school district’s record would be possible without the presence of the University and its faculty, many of whom live in Kent, although in recent years some have chosen to live elsewhere. We’re the “education community” of northeast Ohio in that sense and it is because a significant number of the people who live and work in Kent are employed either by the University or the Kent public schools. Kent State has occasionally commented it might encourage professors to live in Kent with modest financial incentives. Were that done, Kent would be even more an education committee.
The College of Education, by teaming up with Kent schools and other schools in the area too, further enriches us by supporting and in some respects staffing and guiding cutting edge initiatives to help better educate our children.
The College of Business has been generous in working with area businesses lending expertise when it is sought. Especially under George Stevens, it has established a very positive working relationship with organizations like the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce. With the support of former President Cartwright, The College of Business started housing the Kent Area Regional Business Alliance, an organization that uses the resources of Kent State and its branch campuses to support small start-up businesses throughout northeast Ohio and help them grow. That continues under President Lefton.
Kent State since 1996 has housed the Northeast Ohio Trade and Economic Growth Consortium, whose members include 10 counties, and whose president most recently was Portage County Commissioner Chuck Keiper. NEOTEC helps set up and then manage foreign trade zones that enable manufacturers to ship the products into the United States duty free for assembly and resale elsewhere. L’Oreal, the French producer of cosmetics, occupies nearly 1 million square feet of space in Streetsboro, Ohio in a foreign trade zone set up by NEOTEC. Ron DeBarr, the hands on executive who runs NEOTEC day-to-day was recently named chair of the Grantee Committee of the National Association of Foreign Trade Zones.
The School of Architecture has been generous with its expertise. Former Commissioner (and one of our best ever Kent mayors), Nancy Hansford told me that when Portage County was ordered by a federal judge to build its new jail in the late 1980s, all it took was a call to then President Michael Schwartz and the commissioners got free of charge the consulting services of a faculty architect. A faculty member of the School of Architecture sits on the city of Kent’s Architectural Review Board, a board that regrettably I think, has only advisory powers, but having a faculty member on that board nevertheless raises its prestige and lends it gravitas.
On a somewhat personal level, I can tell you the Record-Courier has over the years staffed its newsroom thanks to the School of Journalism and Mass Media at Kent State. We’re a small newspaper, we know, but we’re better than many small newspapers because of that relationship. I think the larger papers and TV and radio media in Cleveland, Akron, and Canton are better because of Kent State too.
Fine arts and intercollegiate sports enrich our lives too. The Sinfonia, Porthouse Theater, free student and faculty concerts, the Blossom School in the summer, give us the opportunity to grow intellectually and culturally. The Wick Poetry Center’s outreach program to area high schools exposes teenagers to a dimension of life that might otherwise pass them by.
The School of Art’s decision to support a studio in the downtown has been a factor in downtown rejuvenation and that is only going to get better now that its studio has teamed up with the McKay Bricker gallery on East Main Street.
Without Kent State’s great basketball program, many of us would find winter far less bearable. Many of us continue to hope for a great football season so we can all tell our grandchildren someday, “Hey! We were there.”
A less structured, but equally important contribution is the fact that many of Kent State’s faculty members decided to sink their roots into the area and call it home. They participate in the life of the community and we are better off for it.
Faculty members and spouses have served on city council, city commissions, township, county boards, on the judiciary, and in the Ohio House and Senate. I am pretty sure we would not have had the Kent League of Women Voters without volunteers from the University. The Kent Environmental Council would probably not exist and we’d probably still be cursing the foul smelling Cuyahoga River were it not for its members. We would probably not have River Edge Park or Heritage Park. Herrick Fen in Streetsboro and contributions by Art Herrick in this regard throughout Portage County would not have occurred. Biologists like Dennis Cooke have been generous with their expertise in analyzing our fresh water lakes.
Consider these names and they are just a few. Joe Giancola, Gene Wenninger, TN Bhargava, Walter and Barbara Watson, Walter and Nancy Adams, Barbara Hipsman Springer, Brynsley Tyrell, Kathleen Chandler, Harriet Begala, Leigh and Anita Herington, Bill and Craig Stephens, Ben Foote, Doug Fuller, Mary Gilbert, Don Schjeldahl, Gordon Keller, Frank Wiley, David Creamer, Tom Clapper, Glenn and Ruth Saltzman Henry and Sandra Halem, Laing and Saundra Kennedy, Carol and Phil Cartwright, going way back, the late Edgar McCormick,and more recently Tim and Margie Chandler. The list could go on and I risk offending you by not adding more names, but for the sake of time, just consider these people and imagine how much poorer we’d all be were they not active in Kent and Portage County. They and many others who have adopted us as home and play a role in the community would not be here, but for Kent State University.
Consider KSU’s talented alumni. We’re lucky many reside in Kent and Portage County and we need to keep more of them living here. Membership in the Kent State Alumni Association offers limited discounts for some University services including guest passes at the Wellness Center, some athletic events with coupons and library loan privileges. My advice is to aggressively expand any of these discounts and advantages you can afford to do. It will make this community even more appealing to KSU graduates. An investment like that would show you a great return and quickly.
Like any relationship, the town-gown one has its complexities and issues and I want to touch on one or two.
First, let’s talk about students because they are the reason Kent State exists and without whom, Kent would be so much poorer. One Kent State leader I interviewed told me when I asked what I should tell the people of Kent in this talk had this comment: “Tell them to make our students feel welcome.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Our students do not feel they are welcome in Kent,” he said bluntly.
As I interviewed KSU leaders, I would often end my interview with the question, “Do students feel welcome in Kent?” To a person, the answer was, “No!”
As I looked into the issues of student relationships with communities that host colleges and universities, I quickly learned we are not alone. I “Googled” the topic of student-town relations up on my laptop, one of the first references I found concerned a bunch of townies beating up on students in Paris, France 800 years ago. Then, I read an excerpt that showed that in the year 1209, vigilantes in Oxford, England scared many of faculty and students of England’s oldest university into fleeing for safety to nearby Cambridge where they proceeded to found another great university.
Turning to more modern times and in the United States, we’ve seen in the last 40 years, student protests in college towns across America, particularly during the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War.
More recently and more locally, we’ve read stories of student party disturbances not just at Kent State, but on the University of Akron campus and its neighborhoods, occasionally at Ohio State during football season, and at Ohio University, especially the weekend a week prior to final exams.
Let’s face it. Young people are going to be young people. I do not want to relive all aspects of their age, but I wouldn’t mind a spoonful of all that energy and spark to liven up my morning cup of tea.
Does Kent’s police department profile Kent State students, the way African Americans are still unfairly profiled by America? I do not know, but city officials say the claims of students and some faculty and administrators are not born out by statistics.
More than 60 percent of Kent’s police department are graduates of the Kent State criminal justice studies program and were once Kent State students themselves. That makes me wonder if the profiling claim is a pattern or an occasional aberration.
Kent’s police force normally puts about seven or eight officers on the streets in a shift and they have plenty to do. I believe they’d prefer to be solving burglaries and real crimes than enforcing a noise ordinance that city council approved several years ago. The police have a difficult job. They are the thin blue line, the people who answer complaints and enforce the law.
The city has passed much better ordinances lately. Its nuisance ordinance puts some of the responsibility on the student landlord, appropriately. It has ordinances and laws to deal with disorderly conduct.
It probably would improve things if representatives of the University, the police, and city council jointly evaluated the city ordinances that actually require the police to arrest students. I know one ordinance the police have to enforce that even the police think is pretty ridiculous and makes them look like bad guys.
A joint review might conclude some ordinances are better than others. If the ordinances not sensible were eliminated, the police, relieved of enforcing them, might be perceived by the students in a more positive light.
The relationship of students and the city was helped a great deal when former President Carol Cartwright with the support of then Mayor Kathleen Chandler initiated regular get acquainted sessions between herself and the university vice presidents and their counterparts in city government. These enabled the people in charge in the city and at the university to have relaxed face-to-face time together. Sometimes, these encounters may have been too formalized, but becoming better acquainted enhanced communication and understanding. It prevented “shoot from the hip statements” about whose fault it was that something slipped through the cracks. Lack of teamwork contributed to KSU’s worst moment, May 4th, 1970, and the University and the city have worked much more closely since that time.
I do not know if these meetings continue, but I’m told, they were very useful in building relationships between key players.
Trouble-makers represent a very small minority and some not are even students, just young adults who find a college town full of young people appealing.
By contrast, hundreds of idealistic Kent State students every year volunteer in the community and many of our charitable organizations and benefit. A partial list includes the Red Cross, Birthright, Boys and Girls Club, Boy Scouts, Center of Hope in Ravenna, Coleman Professional Services. the County Clothing center, Habitat for Humanity, the Hattie Larlham Foundation, Haven of Rest, Head Start, Haven of Rest Ministries, the King Kennedy Center, Miller Home, PARTA, the American Cancer Society, Robinson Memorial Hospital, Safer Futures, the Salvation Army, Townhall II, Skeels-Matthews, the United Way and others. During spring break, another group of KSU students volunteered to head south and help with still on-going Katrina relief for the third year in a row, where among their chaperones has been Ralph Kletzien.
Those volunteer efforts speak volumes about the quality of the students.
Several years ago Fred Skok, who ran a wonderful book store in downtown Kent, and I were discussing town and gown relationships. Fred observed that, Kent has never decided whether it’s a university town or simply a town that happens to have a university in it.
I think he was referring to several aspects of the town-gown relationship. One is the geographical divide. The 1965 campus master plan followed the thinking at that time: spread out, sprawl out and keep the students out of the way of us townies. The center of the campus used to revolve around Rockwell Hall, which was the old library, and the president’s office on Hilltop Drive. Both moved over to Summit Street and now face the Route 261 by pass built in the early 1970s. Geographically, the big players at Kent State became more removed from the downtown. A George Bowman or Bob White, on a sunny day might walk from his office on Hilltop Drive to his home on campus, to the downtown to buy a copy of the New York Times at Thompson’s or Donaghy’s Drug Store, or even to a Rotary meeting. (That’s when presidents actually participated in local life and if may digress, seeing George Bowman walk across campus or anywhere was memorable. With his dark suits, dark horn rimmed glasses and dignified formality, he had the bearing of an old fashioned New England schoolmaster. I’m told that for all his formality President Bowman used to like to stop in the Smoke Shop when in the downtown and talk with Virgil Roberts, who had the “skivvy” on everyone in Kent.)
That ended with Glenn Olds and once his successor Brage Golding moved his office over to the Library, he might walk home to what is now the Alumni House, but downtown rarely. It was too far away.
A second disconnect occurred because in the 1960s, the state of Ohio created the University of Akron, Youngstown State and Cleveland State University. Prior to that, Kent and its sister institutions in Athens, Bowling Green and Oxford plus Ohio State were about all there was as far as publicly supported higher education was concerned. Kent State had northeast Ohio all to itself. It built up some great relationships through branches in Stark, Trumbull, Columbiana, Tuscarawas, Ashtabula and Geauga Counties. Kent State’s main campus was projected to grow to 32,000 students.
But after the 1960s, Kent State had to compete for students in its own backyard with state supported universities newly created in Akron, Youngstown and Cleveland. Kent State had always had a regional focus because when the Normal College was founded a century ago, it was the designated state funded teacher’s college for northeast Ohio.
By the early 1970s, with three other universities competing for many of the same students, Kent’s regional focus became one of survival. Presidents had to be visible in places like Cleveland and Akron and visit alumni to keep the Kent State name in the public. Presidents started looking for deep pockets, especially with successful alumni in the big cities, to find extra money to cover what the state of Ohio would no longer fund. This gave presidents less time to play the role of first citizen of Kent.
The third disconnect that occurred was senior vice presidents moving out of Kent entirely, to live in Stow, to upscale Hudson, to Tallmadge to Akron or Cleveland suburbs or wherever. Tradition has it that Kent State’s president lives in Kent and to President Lefton’s credit that tradition has been upheld.
The net effect of the senior vice presidents leaving town in the evening was that the Kent community ceased to be their community and became instead a town where they happened to hold a job. The same disconnect has happened in private industry. The president of Davey Tree lives in Aurora. The Japanese team that runs Gougler lives in Aurora where they play golf together. I don’t even know where the Ametek local executive lives.
The net effect is a loss for Kent because the top people, who can make things happen, once their workday is done, leave town. What happens after they do leave is, “not my problem.” Town deterioration or issues that do not directly affect their jobs or their families concern them less. They are less willing to invest in local relationships that can make town-gown the team it could be.
A Cleveland businessman who as a KSU trustee did a lot for the Kent State Museum remarked to me 15 years ago that he felt ashamed for his friends to come to see it, not because of the Museum, which is wonderful, but because of Kent’s shabby looks.
I understood his feelings because Kent is not the college town it could be and should be, but I thought, “What have you, Mr. Trustee, done to get the University to engage the community and help guide it to what it should be?”
The thinking of urban planners has changed a lot over the last 40 years. They realize a sense of community creates synergy, but that a sense of community depends on spaces that are pedestrian accessible, interesting once you’re in them, and bring people together. The Esplanade, the walk-way the University has extended across the campus, is part of that thinking. It eventually will go right into the downtown and the sooner the better.
Campus Link, a great idea, is part of that thinking too. It envisions an attractive transition neighborhood between the downtown and the campus. The Bicentennial Plan, drawn up with University resources, that designates this neighborhood would probably require the acquisition of some of the student rental properties whose owners want a buyout reflecting their cash flow earnings.
Buying a unit here, a unit there is one way of making this happen, but it is a slow process. Property owners, if they choose, can stage a legalized holdup like what has happened with the old Hotel, an eyesore for 35 years that gives Kent an aura of blight and a reputation for lack of pride.
Maybe it is time for the city and the university, perhaps leveraging some of the resources of its foundation maybe with the federal grants that are available for universities to rehabilitate their communities, to sit down with the property owners and talk and maybe work out something. That will take commitment, imagination and limited risk. It never hurts to talk though!
On another topic, the recently formed Kent Main Street organization, which has the know-how of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at its disposal, is making headway thanks to funding by the city of Kent, the Burbick foundation, some smaller private gifts, and a silent gift from the University.
Working with the city, the possibility of developing limited frontage along the Cuyahoga River into a whitewater park look very good. A whitewater park accessible by the hike and bike trail that is coming through town could transform downtown Kent and make it a true destination point for students and townies alike and hundreds beyond as well.
The Kent Main Street Organization and its supporters and a consensus on City Council in favor of teaming up with the University, has created a window of opportunity, but it requires the will of Kent State and a designated vice president or an aide who has the full confidence of the president to move the town-gown partnership to a higher level. Without commitment from the top, we’ll be spinning our wheels.
That may be difficult to elicit because in talking with University and Foundation people, I sense an inordinate aversion to risk consistent with Kent State’s tradition. George Bowman, one of my all-time favorite presidents of KSU, set that cautious tone in the 1940s and 50s. In the 1960s, when his successor Bob White pushed ahead in growing Kent State way beyond what Bowman had had in mind during his presidency, Bowman came to resent White. Olds followed White and KSU came unglued. Golding put hammered things back together. He stepped on some toes, but he saved the Kent State University. Schwartz consolidated and built on that. Cartwright labored under exceedingly stingy legislatures and governors, but never gave up and did amazingly well in pushing KSU ahead. The Lefton era is manifesting itself currently.
The city of Kent has worked with the Downtown Kent Corporation, a group of local businessmen, by being a guarantor on loans to acquire and redevelop property. Over 20 years they have proven themselves. I know most of the Foundation’s assets are encumbered, but why couldn’t those assets not encumbered be pledged to enable the Downtown Kent Corporation to borrow and buy up and redevelop property and then sell it to pay off the loans. The Foundation would have no real expense, but it would have limited risk.
If the city of Kent has been willing to take that chance, why not Kent State or at least its Foundation? Why not consider long-term leases of downtown property to create student learning opportunities in downtown retailing. What about the issuance of bonds on a limited basis? There are trustees on the foundation who know a lot about money. Couldn’t they lend their expertise to turning Kent into a first class college town?
Taking town-gown relations to a higher level could begin with a joint strategy of key representatives from the city, the university, the local business community, and the county.
I agree that Kent State needs to keep up its regional focus and be a player in places like Cleveland, but it also needs a strong local focus. If it played a leadership role in local economic development, the difference could be enormous and accrue to Kent State’s and the area’s benefit.
Locally, the University is the biggest kid on the block. Regionally, it is one of many players. Locally, with some strategic thinking by people familiar with property and development, the University can help transform Kent and Portage County in a manner that parallels what the University of Akron, the Akron hospitals and Mayor Don Plusquellic are attempting in Akron.
The University has buildable acreage it controls. Kent and Brimfield have a Joint Economic Development District along State Route 43 and Mogadore Road. It has a similar arrangement along State Route 59 with Franklin Township.
The University would like to benefit from spin-off opportunities that arise through the Liquid Crystals Institute and other science programs. Joint planning with Kent and the county and securing economic development grants could create “ready to go” sites to house high tech businesses that Kent State research can spin off.
Alpha Micron, a business that originated because of the Liquid Crystals Institute and was nurtured by the Kent incubator, the one sponsored by KSU’s Kent Regional Business Alliance is so successful now that it needs a 40,000 square foot building on a campus like setting. We need a ready to go site for Alpha Micron or we’re going to lose it. If we had ready to go sites, we might attract and hang on to many Alpha Microns.
I’m not advocating jeopardizing Kent State’s great bond rating, the strongest in Ohio, but having a great bond rating and not working with the passion that currently exists for positive change in this community is like the Biblical servant, who given a talent, hid it under a bushel for fear of losing it.
I realize you need a finance guy to make sure we are on solid footing financially. If you don’t like bridge or gap financing or being signatory on a loan, maybe there are bond instruments available to raise money. I know matching federal money could be accessed to rebuild and improve the town because other colleges and universities are doing this.
I am not advocating Kent State do anything too adventurous either because other colleges and universities have long ago blazed this trail. Yale University bought up downtown New Haven because it thought a nice downtown could be a great recruiting tool. Closer by, the University of Akron is buying up downtown Akron realizing that property values in downtown Akron, like some of those in Kent, are at an all-time low. In other words, there are great deals out there.
To name just a few, the University of Chicago, Cleveland State, Colgate University, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the University of Massachusetts, and even good old Southeast Missouri in Cape Giardeau where our friend Ken Dobbins is president are hard at work making things happen. How much easier in a small college town like Kent!
The city of Kent by optioning the downtown block east of the Municipal Court has put its full faith and credit on the line and it is about to pay off. Kent State says it has $36 million worth of upgrades to complete on the campus, but most of that money will come from Columbus. What about a Kent State commitment to the downtown and a research park?
Steve Colecchi, president and CEO of Robinson Memorial Hospital, along with Summa is making a multi-million dollar investment in Kent and adding probably 100 jobs to the community. When he saw the news about Akron’s planned for medical corridor and research park in its downtown backed by Mayor Plusquellic, the Akron hospitals and the University of Akron, he wrote this in an email:
“I am not trying to make an political comment – but we are seriously missing the boat in Portage County if we do not come together to promote the area. I believe we are kidding ourselves if we think the Akron Regional
Development Board or Cleveland Plus will focus on promoting Portage County.”
I couldn’t agree more.
This is the age of globalization. It has opportunities unheard of and risks. Communities that take measured risks and seize opportunities will rise. Those that do not will be left behind despite the rosy outlook Team NEO keeps putting out as the Rustbelt and Ohio fall further behind.
Windows of opportunity open and close. Right now, in Kent and Portage County, in terms of desire, that window is wide open. Taking the town-gown relationship to a higher level that lets us plot out a better future is a risk well worth taking.
If you agree, then let’s all work together and bring positive change to Kent, to Kent State and to Portage County too. The reality is if we do not work together, we may go down together. If we do go down, we’ll have no one to blame, but ourselves. The city of Kent, Portage County, and its businesses and citizens are ready to work together and would very much like to team up with Kent State.
Thanks for listening and have a good day.
Dave Dix, Publisher of the Record Courier, Speech at the Bowman Breakfast, March 27th 2008 at the American Legion Hall.