Town-Gown Relationship

To be clear, I love WSU. But that’s not why my family and I live in Pullman.

My wife and I married young. I spent my last two years as an undergrad in Pullman, after transferring from Centralia College, where we both grew up.

We lived off campus. One summer, I worked for KMAX 850-AM in Colfax, covering a lot of city council and school  board meetings. My wife and I often walked from our little rental on Dexter Street to Lawson Gardens. I played in her work softball league. We would go to movies downtown, when the theater was still there. There were a lot less restaurant options back then, but our favorite was Pete’s Bar and Grill, which, as a young couple that actually cared about being frugal, was about all we could occasionally afford.

We loved Pullman! We came back for the city, not the university. WSU merely gave us the opportunity to be here. I don’t mean any disrespect when I say this, either. I am truly a Coug. And, I won’t bite the hand that feeds me. But if WSU existed in some other place, I would still try to be here working somewhere else. SEL? Digilent? Decagon?

I realize now that we were the exception. Many students can go for 2-4 years, or more, and never spend any quality time in Pullman. No, driving to Walmart and back is not quality time in Pullman.

One of the best things to come from our new WSU president, is the increased relationship between the university and the city. President Kirk Schulz and Mayor Glenn Johnson have each other on speed dial. Noel Schulz already had a relationship with SEL executives. The two of them – both extremely active on Twitter – have been making a positive push for better town-gown relationships. They’ve attended some recent town-gown meetings. And, they’ve both had the foresight to include some community leaders in the interview process for the university’s new VP for student affairs.

I wouldn’t even stop short of saying it’s the best top-level relationship this town has seen in a long time. I can appreciate this. The Office of the Provost sponsors an event during Academic Showcase every spring called Three Minute Thesis. I have the privilege of actually administering the event. One of my goals, when I select the judges for the event, is to always get at least two city folks. Last year, for example, I chose a local business leader and our police chief. This is important to me.

In case it’s a new term for you, “town and gown” is generally seen as two distinct communities of a university town: the city (town) and the university (gown). It’s roots go all the way back to medieval times, and has a historically adversarial relationship. I’m not going to dive that deep into it here, though, at the risk of the gown folks going nuts, I’ll suggest you read more about it in the source of all truth and wisdom: Wikipedia :). Here’s the link: httpss://

I feel like there are some huge benefits for both parties to improve relationships. Certainly, ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurship will be stronger through a concerted effort. A piece that articulates this can be found here:

One part of this article says: “Under the presidency of Judith Rodin, the University of Pennsylvania led the rebuilding of West Philadelphia by pursuing five bread and butter strategies: 1) creating clean and safe streets; 2) increasing housing and home ownership; 3) promoting commercial development; 4) fostering economic opportunity; and 5) fortifying public education. Those strategies have paid big dividends, including a 31% reduction in crime, an 88% increase in median home values in five years, 150,000 square feet of new retail space, and new businesses and schools. The University’s standing in national rankings is now soaring.”

Here in Pullman, there is a vast disconnect between students on College Hill and most of the city’s businesses, including downtown. Some restaurants seem to be doing better than others, like Porch Light Pizza, and South Fork (which has the best fries in all the land). But by and large, too many students stay where they’re at.

I know that jointly with our good university president and his amazing wife, our city officials can continue positive working relationships. All efforts toward a formalized plan, and work in both the town-gown, as well as sub-committees, is vital. Just a few of the areas I think could be part of improving the town-gown relationship are:

  • Service. I believe love and investment in our community can grow when there is an opportunity to render meaningful service. I appreciate organizations like the Center for Civic Engagement. I am personally very active in Kiwanis. I know I’ve tried to open up a dialog with CCE regarding a partnership. The response I received was somewhat puzzling: half apathy/indifference, and half invitation to just have our organization just start fulfilling needs that they had identified (I do have emails showing this). The synergy that could exist between the two entities’ civic engagement is one that would ensure that 2+2 = way more than 4. Unfortunately, right now, an organization that talks about the value of engagement doesn’t seem to want to engage with one of the city’s top civic organizations.
  • Commerce. I appreciate the Chamber of Commerce doing what they feel they can to promote local business. There’s even a week where they help connect students with local restaurants. The restaurants will often offer discounts, though most I’ve seen are only 10-15 percent off. There’s some short-term value in getting students off the hill to try various restaurants. You’re just trying to entice them. That being said, I know a lot of students who won’t come off the hill for a mere 15 percent. These are students who aren’t too worried about the money they spend (often, unfortunately, on loan), and the 10-15 percent is not an incentive. There are others that will come down for that discount. But, if you’re a person who does things when there’s a bargain – I’ll admit, I’m in this camp – there’s little incentive to do the same thing when it’s full price. Seriously, I do support our local businesses. But if I can get a $20 Zoe’s gift certificate on the KQQQ radio auction for only $10, why would I ever pay $20 again? I do give props to Neil’s Flowers and Gifts for being active on social media, having a ton of Cougs stuff, and hawking it to the students. They even do a good job reaching out to parents and positioning themselves as a good option for gifts they can give their kids who are here in Pullman.
  • Transportation. I think transportation issues are a huge deterrent to being an active part of the community. I speak more in detail about the transportation network as a whole separate issue. But improved public transportation could benefit all, especially students who live off campus, but don’t live in “Apartment Land.” Currently, I believe there is some disconnect between the city and the university in a few areas. On one hand, WSU Transportation Services (“parking”) has a fairly large task force made up of various stakeholders. None of them is community representation. That strikes me as odd. Parking’s policies affect all the homes and churches on the fringe of campus. On the flip side, with all the committees or boards the city has, there’s nothing for public transportation. This is a fact: Glenn has done a masterful job making sure all demographics are represented at various committees and boards. For example, on the Board of Adjustment, where I serve, we have a student on the board. This is the case for most boards and committees. And that’s by design. So, if we had a committee for public transportation, we’d most likely have university representation. Seems like a win-win. Off-campus parking, especially on College Hill, is a disaster. Quite simply, there are way more cars than there are places to put them. More parking near Greek Row is vital. In planning, there’s a theory that you don’t want too much parking, as that is just wasted space. We’re not even close to having this issue! We can probably talk a lot more about this
  • Housing. It would behoove the university to work closely with the city on housing. My perception is that the university is very hands-off about this, unless it deals directly with Housing and Residence Life. Then again, it is my perception that the city is very hands-off about it, as well. This doesn’t only affect College Hill, but due to its proximity to the university, most off-campus housing issues occur there. Housing is fraught with occupancy restriction violations, for example. Anyone who says otherwise has their head in the sand. Also, in a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario, many students absolutely trash houses. At the same time, there are some less-than-attentive landlords. I’ll stop shorts of using the term “slumlords” but some are pretty darned close. Each blames the other. Students will first say they keep things in good condition. If they’re honest, they might blame the landlords; basically broken-window theory created the atmosphere that made them destroy the place. If you ask the landlord, they’ll say that their places are essentially like the Sistine chapel until students come in. Many don’t live up to their obligations in the contracts, including repair of appliances and heat, yet they do expect students to live up to their end. Some of these houses have more than just leaky faucets that aren’t fixed, but legitimate structural damage… holes in the roof, missing siding, sagging porches, crumbling foundation. I’m not sure what the solutions are. But it would be a great town-gown issue to address. Perhaps there is a strategy that can be implemented.

I try to stay positive on the “issues” I cite on this website. And, of those, this is the one that I may be least concerned with. I have full confidence in the top executive for both our city and our university. I want to see this continue, and then be better communicated to the community at large. Not just that it’s happening, but what exactly it is.