The Colgate Scene
Taking the Initiative
Hamilton and its college stride ahead, together
|by James E. Leach|
The Hamilton Initiative's Palace Theater
When those early Hamiltonians gathered to talk about founding a seminary in their hometown, they probably couldn't have imagined it would one day become a liberal arts college with an operating budget 25 times that of their village. But here we are, 184 years later, and Colgate is trying to play a hand in community development without taking over the community.
Colgate will invest $10 million in its hometown in the next two years. Ten million dollars is a big number in a small town and can easily be seen as a threat. In fact, there are some anxious residents who would rather the college weren't so heavily involved in shaping Hamilton's future -- and their voices help govern the college's efforts.
Fortunately for those of us presently at Colgate, a long line of our predecessors established a record for working as good neighbors in collaboration with the community. Now, with people from the village and town, we've happened on an innovative and effective model for small-town community development.
About a thousand people live in the Village of Hamilton, not counting Colgate's 2,750 students. The village operating budget is $4 million this year; the college's is $100 million. For more than 40 years, in recognition of both its dependence on the village and the strains that dependence can create, the college has been making payments in lieu of taxes to support the village, surrounding township and local schools. This year, those payments and property taxes will total more than $400,000.
Over the years the college has been a good citizen in other ways, too: giving the land for the community hospital and contributing lead gifts in the hospital's capital campaigns; covering three-quarters of the cost of the fire department's new ladder truck; sustaining the volunteer ambulance corps; and getting behind projects like the community day care center, the playground, the Little League fields and the village library. The whole town turns out when the college shoots off fireworks on July 4.
Village Green restoration
Then there's the human capital. Colgate's people, as residents and citizens,
do their share in the community. Students, faculty and staff volunteer as
firefighters, EMTs, school board members, tutors and coaches. They take part.|
Four years ago the Town of Hamilton wrote a long-range plan built around a survey of community opinions and presented its elements at a public forum that packed the high school auditorium. Colgate was in a position to help.
Neil Grabois, president of the college at the time, invited leaders of the village and town to meet with his staff. He offered Colgate's support if those groups would like to pursue a collaborative approach to community development. There were some skeptical looks around the room. But the mayor and the chairman of the town board signed on, and a small group of volunteers began to meet and hammer out a mission and goals. Colgate was the principal funder, with underwriting from the village and town.
Maybe it was just a happy accident of timing, but the mix of volunteers who came to the table turned out to be extremely important. The author of the town's planning document was a lawyer -- Eve Ann Shwartz -- who had given up her practice to run the family cattle farm. The then-college treasurer, Betsy Eismeier, had been a leader on the village day care project -- and her kids were day care alumni. Stella Brink, who was in her second term as Hamilton's mayor, was focused on economic development. Walt Jaquay, chairman of the town board, longed for new jobs that might attract his grown kids back to town. Colgate sociologist Adam Weinberg saw the effort as a real-life practicum. Scott Mills, a young town politician, brought the views of an independent businessperson. RuthAnn Loveless, Colgate associate vice president for alumni affairs, was a longtime village resident and school board member. They are all "doers" with a shared commitment to the community.
Inviting the participation of anyone else who had an interest, the group met for nearly a year -- often once or twice weekly -- to draft a plan of action and operating principles. I'm not much of a politician and I hate meetings, but that was one of the most creative processes I've ever witnessed. Hours at a time, in the little meeting room in the back of the village library, we came to terms with one another's interests and learned just how much we had in common. As we became believers, we were able to make the case more effectively to the village and town governing boards and the college's administration and trustees.
In May 1999 the group incorporated as a non-profit community development corporation -- the Partnership for Community Development (PCD) -- and was subsequently awarded 501(c)3 status, which enabled it to receive and administer gifts for the public's benefit. Shwartz, the lawyer/cattle farmer, was elected president.
Community development projects such as the Village Green restoration and the Hamilton Initiative's Palace Theater (above) may help attract new businesses like Maxwell's candy store.
The group set out to be as apolitical as possible, while supporting the work
of local government. One of the stated goals -- to "enable community
development efforts to proceed through changes in government and local
leadership" -- may sound trite, but in the three years since the partnership
incorporated, the village has had three mayors and the college has been led by
three presidents and served by two treasurers. Young as it is, the PCD has
played a stabilizing role in community development efforts. But its influence
is based more on goodwill than on politics.|
The partnership is committed to protecting the character of the village and town. Whatever it does to enhance economic vitality and quality of life has to be consistent with the prevailing community values. As time-consuming as it can be to develop plans based largely on community input, the result has been a broad base of support and interest.
With its operating principles in place, the PCD undertook its first set of initiatives: help the village raise funds to revitalize the green, which has long been the center of community activity; start a program to improve façades and streetscapes downtown; and launch programs to help small businesses develop and to recruit suitable new business to the area.
More than 50 local residents packed into the Barge Canal Coffee Company on Lebanon Street for a public meeting to help a team of architects identify ways to improve the façades and streetscapes. Subsequent meetings provided opportunities for public input as the plans developed. The final work product -- including a set of before-and-after renderings of downtown buildings -- hung in the same coffeehouse and generated more community interest. The volunteer committee that spearheaded the project nicknamed itself FAST (for Façade and Streetscape Team). The chairman was a public-spirited general contractor, Roger Bauman, who took the FAST nickname to heart. He was relentless, talking with residents and business owners, developing a request for proposals, recruiting architects, pressing the committee toward selection and, ultimately, bringing the plans to table.
The façade program is approaching its third season. A lead gift from Colgate has attracted some foundation funding, and the partnership has been able to offer the owners of commercial buildings a financing package that is 50 percent outright grant, 40 percent no-interest loan and 10 percent owner equity. The only requirement is that owners work with architects provided by the partnership. To date, the partnership has invested more than $150,000 in restoring the façades of nearly half the eligible buildings in Hamilton's small downtown.
The streetscape portion of the plan has been more complicated because it affects public roads -- the PCD has plans and funding, and the approvals are gradually lining up. With luck, the first changes will appear this summer.
Jim Dickson, David Sohn, Betsy Vantine, Larry Canning, Scott Mills and Sheila Fenton (from left) attend a PCD information session in April.
Restoration of the Village Green has been a study in community
involvement. The village administration had commissioned a design before the
partnership got organized. When that first plan was unveiled, it attracted a
troubling amount of criticism that didn't bode well for a gift-supported
project. As one of its first assignments, the partnership joined in the
fundraising and collaborated with village committees to sponsor a series of
public hearings, coordinated by Dudley Breed, a skilled and thoughtful
landscape architect, that resulted in a completely revised design. The
restoration includes a new bandstand/pavilion and a fountain that was funded by
a $70,000 graduation gift from the college's Class of 2000. All told, the cost
will exceed a half million dollars, and except for a $100,000 grant from the
state, virtually all of the money will have come from the
Small business development has centered around two programs. "Life's Work" funds a mentoring program that provides experienced advisors and technical assistance to help emerging small businesses to grow. In its first two years of operation, Life's Work has provided assistance for 20 small businesses, underwritten by $32,000 in grant support. Meanwhile, the staff and volunteers concentrating on business recruitment are developing materials that promote business opportunities in Hamilton. The Colgate network became involved in business recruitment through a project called CARE, for the Colgate Alumni Recruiting Effort, coordinated through the alumni office.
Energized by the early successes of the PCD, a handful of Colgate trustees, headed by Tony Whaling '59, a charismatic entrepreneur with small-town roots, hatched a plan to buy and restore a building downtown. College staff members worked with the interested trustees to research business arrangements that would allow them tax credit for their investments in the downtown properties, which are almost certain to be loss leaders, at least at the outset. We settled on a limited liability company, wholly owned by the college and funded by donations from alumni, parents and friends. The group labeled the project "Hamilton Initiative" and set out to buy a fixer-upper.
There were several on the market, and most were declining rapidly. Hamilton Initiative made offers on three buildings, with the expectation of buying one. All three offers were accepted -- and the largest of the commercial properties came in a package deal with three other smaller but no less needy properties.
The renovated public library
Suddenly, Hamilton Initiative was a major property owner
downtown. Imagine the anxiety that produced in a small town where the
majority of the properties are already tax-exempt. Hamilton Initiative
addressed that sentiment head on. In press releases, calls to
village leaders and appearances before service clubs, the group laid out the
goals: the properties would stay on the tax rolls, and while Hamilton
Initiative was nominally "for profit," its operating principal was based not on
making money at the outset, but on restoring commercial spaces in a way that
could contribute to the economic vitality of downtown -- consistent with the
ongoing work of the PCD. In its most optimistic moments, Hamilton Initiative
can foresee a profit some day, but this is not what you'd call a typical
venture capital investment.|
To manage the whole process, Hamilton Initiative hired Bauman, the volunteer who had launched the partnership's façade project. Working from a downtown storefront, he has brought a mix of skills and community goodwill that have mitigated a lot of tensions. He has put a face -- a happy one -- on Hamilton Initiative's work downtown.
One of the initiative's purchases enabled Vantine Studios, a large manufacturing concern owned by Edward Vantine '56, to move out of downtown and anchor a new, state-of-the-art plant at the village airpark. The old manufacturing facility is being restored as retail space -- its original purpose. Once the renovation of that vacated structure is complete this summer, the college will move its bookstore downtown. It will expand its offerings of trade books and music with the expectation of attracting more traffic and therefore more business for other village merchants. Hamilton Initiative is being careful not to compete with any existing businesses in town.
Most of Hamilton's downtown was destroyed by fire in 1895, and many of the commercial properties that make up the business district today were built during a narrow window of time between the fire and about 1915. They really are period pieces, though some of the building details have been masked or lost through remodeling over the years. Hamilton Initiative is on the restoration fast track. The façades of all six of its buildings should be restored by this summer -- complementing the work being done on other commercial structures through the program sponsored by the PCD./td>
The renovated public library and the Hamilton Initiative's restoration of the Hotel Maxwell building have spruced up the downtown area, complementing the PCD's façade-improvement program.
Colgate parents have adopted one of the initiative's structures
-- the Palace Theater. The picture house was ahead of its time when it opened
with a showing of Quo Vadis in 1914, but it soon began a gradual decline
that led to its latest life as a warehouse. With $1.5 million in funding,
primarily from the gifts of parents, Hamilton Initiative is converting the
warehouse to a dance and entertainment venue that will fill a pressing need of
the town and the college. Managed as an independent enterprise,
the Palace will offer a mix of programming from jazz to comedy, but mostly
R&B and hip hop -- student dance music. Alcohol will be available but
carefully controlled, and the success or failure of the Palace won't hinge on
profits from the bar. Parents are talking about raising a dedicated endowment
that will underwrite operating expenses.|
Last fall, at a daylong workshop of the board of the PCD, the members looked back on where they'd been over their first three years, and looked ahead to new projects -- reaching out to other crossroads villages in the township, advocating buy-local campaigns and supporting efforts that sustain local agriculture and preserve our rural environment. Bob Kuiper, the oldest member of the board and a former mayor, former town supervisor and village businessman, commented that in all his years in Hamilton there had never been more change in the air. To him, that was good. There are a handful of detractors, but the prevailing sentiment in town is one of enthusiasm and encouragement. We still negotiate our differences, but from a base of trust that has been built from spending hours together, working for interests that we now know benefit us all.
To a casual observer, the changes in our village might seem sudden -- something akin to the rebuilding after the fire of 1895. But I think the changes are evolutionary -- the Partnership for Community Development and Hamilton Initiative are just the latest manifestations of years of cooperation between a village and its college.
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