Breaking the town and gown divide

“I accidentally fell in love with this town,” Carolyn Case thought as she tried to figure out her post-grad plans. “I kind of don’t want to leave.”

Throughout her time as an undergraduate and as a graduate student at Ball State University, Carolyn never thought she’d stay in Muncie. She and her fiancé had plans to move away. But she began to second guess everything.

She brought this up to her fiancé. They just recently became members of their church, the cost of living is fairly cheap, they could have a comfortable lifestyle, and they care about the people here. They accidentally put down roots in Muncie. It seemed wrong to leave.

So they decided to stay.

Universities tend to attract two things to a small town: revenue and people. They bring in revenue from outside the immediate area through tuition, endowment income, or state tax allocations and bring in human capital in the form of students and employees, according to a study by the University of Kentucky. All of this contributes to the area’s economic growth. With the large influx of people from outside areas, it’s not atypical for university students to be unfamiliar with the town they call home for four years. This disconnect is known as the town and gown divide.

Carolyn didn’t like to feel the divide between where she lives and where she goes to school, so  three years ago, she got involved in the My Muncie campaign, designed to showcase volunteerism in Muncie. After her role with the project ended she thought, “I don’t want to start something then just let it die. I want to put my skills to use.” So she reached out to a volunteer she met through the campaign and got involved with Edible Muncie.

Carolyn is one of the students Kelli Huth, director of immersive learning and the Building Better Communities (BBC) Fellows Programs, has seen who came to Ball State not knowing much about Muncie, then changed that through immersive learning.

One of the major causes for a town and gown divide in a small town setting like Muncie is the detachment between campus and downtown, according to a study by Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCO) real estate advisors. Breaking the divide starts with creating a vibrant town environment. RCLCO suggests a College Town Action Plan with three stages: become a great college town, become a regional lifestyle destination, and become a unique and desirable upscale regional location to live, work, learn, and play. This is how college towns get students to stay after graduation.

People and atmosphere come first, industry comes second.

Kelli agreed with this, saying that if a community is a place people want to live, jobs will come naturally because workers want to stay. She emphasized putting a focus on quality of place.

The top suggestion to carry out the College Town Action Plan is to implement more independent businesses close to campus. This is something The Village, an area of businesses next to Ball State’s campus, is doing. Ball State students see an array of local businesses mixed in with chains. The Village offers local restaurants and shops like Puerta al Paraiso, Two Cats Cafe, White Rabbit Books, and Juniper clothing boutique while also providing big name companies within walking distance of campus.

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