A College Builds a Town From Scratch

The Associated Press
Sunday, December 24, 2006; 8:42 PM

STORRS, Conn. -- The University of Connecticut's main campus boasts a string of new buildings, thanks to a multibillion-dollar infusion of state cash. The student body is growing. And there are two powerhouse basketball teams that bring big-time sports to a rural corner of the state.

There's one thing, however, that UConn doesn't have: a college town.

So it has decided to help build one from scratch _ complete with shops, restaurants, hundreds of apartments and even a traditional New England town green.

The project exemplifies the growing interest of colleges and universities in their surrounding communities. Many have realized that a building boom of dormitories, student centers and libraries isn't enough. Students don't want an "ivory tower" experience; they want to be part of broader communities that offer commerce, culture and cuisine.

But while many colleges are working to expand or revitalize nearby neighborhoods, this project may be unique in that it is trying to construct one anew.

"People ask us if there are other examples," says Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the Mansfield Downtown Partnership. "I'm like, 'No, not really.'"

Most colleges, even small rural ones, have grown up around a town or spawned one, as businesses opened to keep students supplied with books, pizza, beer and coffee.

Thanks to accidents of geography, infrastructure and municipal history, that never really happened here. Even though 20,000 people attend school on campus, the tiny village of Storrs is little more than a handful of businesses in a strip mall, a post office and a dateline for stories about the basketball teams.

Surveys of admitted students who turn down UConn, and of students who drop out, show the lack of off-campus options is the chief complaint. Most students can't have cars until they earn 54 credits.

"We were getting comments like, 'I really like the education but you walk across the street and there's nothing there,'" said Dolan Evanovich, vice provost for enrollment management. "The expectation is the creation of a town will be the missing link."

The plans are slow moving, with completion targeted for 2013. And the mayor of Mansfield _ the town that includes the village of Storrs _ points out the university is just one of several players.

But for UConn, the project is a matter of urgency because of the college's growth in the past decade. Two initiatives by the Legislature have committed more than $2.3 billion to the university, and much of that money has gone into a building boom on the Storrs campus.

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