Originally published in Business Digest, December 1996

College Towns Compared

by Edna Tenney

In mid-October I received a call from Tom Dennis, the editorial page editor of The Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., requesting permission to reproduce the cover photo from the current edition of the Business Travelers' Guide to Greater Burlington. He found the guide in his hotel room when he visited Burlington this fall as part of his research for a five-part series the Pennsylvania daily was running called "Lessons from a College Town."

Permission granted.

A few days later, Dennis mailed us the newspaper. We were delighted to see our photo and quotes from our guide associated with a complimentary and thought-provoking article about Vermont's Queen City. The day the newspaper arrived, I went home for lunch and stopped to chat with my neighbor, who was opening her mail. She proceeded to show me the same clipping, which she had just received from her good friend, a Vermonter, now living in Wilkes-Barre!

Just as it is for Wilkes-Barre, there is always something to be learned from other areas that are dealing with similar challenges. In a telephone interview, Dennis was kind enough to share his findings about the other college towns he visited to add to our summary of his views about Burlington.

[newspaper] An article on the editorial page of the Oct. 20, 1996, edition of The Times Leader, the Wilkes-Barre, Pa. daily newspaper, was headlined "America's dream town, Burlington, Vermont." The piece, written by editorial page editor, Tom Dennis, was part of a series, "Lessons From a College Town," that took him to five college towns looking for answers to the questions: "What sets college towns apart? What accounts for their vibrancy and good health?"

Dennis was researching the questions to find what Wilkes-Barre, also a college town, could learn from its peers.

Located in a former coal-mining area in northeast Pennsylvania, Wilkes-Barre is a city of approximately 45,000 just 20 minutes from Scranton, yet is as economically separated from that neighboring city as Burlington is from Rutland. In the Greater Wilkes-Barre area there are five colleges, accounting for nearly 12,000 students. Two of the schools, King's College and Wilkes University are located within a couple of blocks of the downtown center.

The city, Dennis says, has a reasonably healthy downtown, low unemployment and a fairly diverse business base with a couple of very large employers. It has an attractive town center called Public Square, where "lately," Dennis says, "there has been talk of trying to bring in more residential spaces."

The Wilkes-Barre metro area -- the city and the 35 surrounding communities -- are framed by long, low mountain ridges linked to the Poconos. The city has "a sprinkling of 30- and 40-story skyscrapers," and borders the Susquehanna River. A waterfront park signed by Frederick Law Olmstead, was divided by the construction of levies along the river in the 1930s, leaving a smaller park and some unusable land. "In the last couple of years there have been efforts to reclaim the riverside," Dennis says.

It's easy to see the parallels between Wilkes-Barre and Burlington -- colleges, mountains, waterfront, even a Frederick Law Olmstead park. But what Dennis chronicled in his article are the differences and the reasons behind those differences. He makes the comparisons, then asks, "Why is Burlington, and not Wilkes-Barre universally hailed for its quality of life?"

His answer is simple. "Burlington," he writes, "has attitude."

And with this observation, Dennis found something to bring back to Wilkes-Barre. "Because attitudes are a lot easier to grow than mountains," he concludes.

Dennis includes references to many of Burlington's good reviews, like the headline on the July 1995 issue of Outside magazine that proclaimed it one of America's dream towns, a headline he chose for his article as well. And the attitudes responsible for Burlington's esteem are about planning and environmental concerns.

He gives examples of the attitudes in action -- the planning inherent in Vermont's billboard and signage laws, Act 250, Act 200, the Pyramid and Wal-Mart fights. He chronicles the development of the waterfront, noting that the city's small population found the resources to build a nine-mile bike path along the lake. He points to the defeat of the 1980 bond proposal as an example of environmental concerns outranking economic interests, when Burlingtonians voted to preserve open spaces rather than increase tax revenues. He notes the benefits of "Vermont's Switzerland-like reputation for cleanliness and quality" on tourism, business recruitment and sales of Vermont products around the country and the world.

The article's conclusion belongs at the top of every page of the city's official stationery:

"Yes, the city is a delightful place to study, as well as to visit or live. But the heart of that appeal is Vermont's careful attention to the environment; to blue skies, blue rivers, blue lakes and mountains of forest green."

Burlington was the fourth city Dennis visited. The series will be completed with an article about his up-coming trip to Fargo, N.D. The first city on his itinerary was State College, Pa., home to Penn State and its nearly 40,000 students, making it the ultimate college town. It is located in the fastest growing area in Pennsylvania, Dennis says, and, like Burlington, one of the ingredients in its continued well-being as a city is planning.

State College participates in a regional planning group with the surrounding communities. A focus for the advisory group is maintaining the area's "small town feeling," while minimizing sprawl and keeping the downtowns growing. The home of the Nittany Lions obviously shares more than similar allegorical mascots with the home of the Catamounts.

In Blacksburg, Va., a college town because of the presence of Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech to Big East football fans), Dennis was struck by its attention to beauty. "It looks like a college town should," he says, mentioning an extensive array of bike trails and a corporate center of 80 incubator businesses spawned by well developed cooperative efforts between private business and the educational institution.

He really liked the little Ivies. "Amherst, Mass., is a model of cooperation among the five colleges in the area," Dennis says, " with shared professors, shared majors, regular buses between the campuses, and an extensive combined library system."

One of the attributes common to all the college towns he visited is the obvious support for the college populations by the downtown retailers -- something lacking in Wilkes-Barre. "The city does not even have a bookstore," Dennis laments. "Or a Starbucks."

Perhaps they need a Chassman & Bem, Wilkes-Barre, or Wilkes-Barre Speeder & Earl's?

Edna Tenney is editor of Business Digest.