Communication Helps Overcome Town-Gown Challenges

May 4, 2015

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Nancy Denson, UGA’s Pat Allen and a UGA student discuss city-college concerns.

While many Georgia cities enjoy good working relationships with colleges and universities within their boundaries, there are often challenges and unrealized opportunity to improve collaborations.
“The city and the college have a good working relationship, we don’t want the college to get too far ahead of the city or the city to get too far ahead of the col­lege,” said Dahlonega Councilmember Sam Norton about the city’s relationship with the University of North Georgia, which is located in the city’s downtown. “We need a symbiotic relationship with one another. However, the communica­tion needs to improve.”
GMA is developing an enhanced member service designed to help cities develop partnerships and improved com­munications between them and their lo­cal colleges and universities. GMA’s Perry Hiott is leading the town-gown effort.
“Cities that host a college or univer­sity often encounter a double edged sword,” Hiott said. He noted that colleges and universities typically generate positive economic impact and cultural opportunities for their surrounding communities and will often share resources with cit­ies. “But tensions can rise over negative impacts includ­ing transportation issues, housing, noise, property tax exemptions, public safety and an increase demand on services,” Hiott said. Norton knows of those challenges well.
“They use our infrastructure but they don’t help pay for it,” Norton said of the University of North Georgia. “That is my biggest problem with the college. They have every exemption under the sun.”
However, in challenge, there is opportunity. Beth Bagwell, executive director for the International Town-Gown Association (ITGA), said their members indicate that relationship building and collaboration involving students is essential to problem solving between cities and schools.
ITGA, based in Clemson, S.C., uses the city’s relation­ship with Clemson University as a town-gown model for its members.
“Clemson’s joint city-university advisory board meets monthly and identify themselves as a problem solving group,” Bagwell explained. “The group meetings foster communication, improve the utilization of resources and explore opportunities for mutual benefit. Clemson has been doing this since the early 1990s.” The town-gown group often addresses issues such as planning and land use, transportation and parking, public works, and fiscal responsibility and impact. The city also boasts a fare-free transit system, which is supported by both the city and the university.

Bagwell said that when the group is dealing with a rather contentious issue, they all agree to speak to each other before they talk to the press or anyone else.
“The group builds trust among itself,” she said, add­ing that shared leadership among the town-gown group is also important. “Involvement must be top-down with buy-in from the mayor and the college president.”
Cities that don’t yet have regular or formal meetings with its college or university, but want to, could start informally, Bagwell advised.
“It could be just chatting at a coffee shop and de­termining who is missing from the conversation,” she said. “You want to first look at areas of mutual benefits. You do not want to bring people together for a griping session.”
Pat Allen, director of Community Relations in the Office of Government Relations for the University of Georgia (UGA), has been UGA’s community relations staff member since 1993 when the position was first created following the announcement that Athens would host events during the 1996 Olympic Games. He said senior level city and university staff have met monthly for breakfast ever since.
“The meetings help people get to know one another,” he said. “They’ve been so successful we started another series of breakfast meetings for department heads. The idea is to develop a relationship with your peers out­side of solving a problem or negotiating. There is a lot of value of having a relationship beyond that and then you look for win-win opportunities.”
Allen said UGA and Athens-Clarke County have col­laborated on several initiatives including infrastructure projects, rebuilding roads adjacent to campus, a waste water treatment plant and a transit initiative that in­volved route planning and the university reimbursing the city for every student, faculty and staff public transit ride.
“Of course we have disagreements, but we have a solid relationship in which to solve problems,” he said.
Fort Valley Mayor Barbara Williams said the city’s relationship with Fort Valley State University, her alma mater, is already collaborative. “Any initiative that is hap­pening with the college, the president does me the re­spect to involve me,” she said. “The city also provides internships for students.” She pointed out that the city’s Public Safety Director, Lawrence Z. Spurgeon, is also a graduate of Fort Valley State and started with the city’s police department as a college intern.
Williams is however, pushing for more collaboration between the city and the university, especially eco­nomically. “What I’ve emphasized to them is the need to set up a retail outlet in the downtown area,” she said. Williams added that she is looking forward to idea shar­ing among her city peers as part of GMA’s town-gown efforts.
Hiott said that GMA will continue to explore oppor­tunities to serve as a resource for cities regarding town-gown issues and he advised that a second focus group meeting is being planned later in the year.
“Through the sharing of information and regular communication, our hope is that cities and their local colleges and universities can work together to attain mutually achievable goals and develop solutions to “friction points” and other shared problems,” Hiott said.

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