If there is a tiny bit of insight which I have gained in my 50 years of life and my 25 years as a teacher it is that nearly every personality trait is both a strength and a weakness. How we view these characteristics has much more to do with the circumstances in which they manifest themselves than in any inherent goodness or badness.
This is not a bold place. People here do not believe in growth. In preparation for “The Curbside Chat” we removed a bullet point about faith in exponential growth because we knew that it was not a problem with which we had to deal. On the positive side, very few investors in this region assume amazing rates of return, and so there is less volatility and less sensitivity to the boom and bust cycle of the economy at large. As I read the analysis of experts who write about the inevitably higher cost of energy in the future they comment on the difficulties we will face societally dealing with a “no growth” paradigm, I often think that the industrial Northeast has been living with the realities of stagnation and decline for three generations; we’re ready!
I remember, in my earlier, “theistic life”, being party to conversations in the Mormon church in which the leadership, hailing mostly from other parts of the United States, was sure that building a new chapel and having a new temple nearby would create rapid growth in church membership. They cited examples like the Bay Area in California or Atlanta, Georgia. I would always bring up the fact that those places had grown astronomically in overall population as well at the same time new temples were built, and the membership growth was more likely due to Mormons moving into the area for employment. I suppose it’s that sort of thinking that turned me into an ex-Mormon and an ex-theist!
On the other hand tremendous opportunities have gone begging. At the top of the list I would place taking advantage of the presence of nearly 20,000 students attending college in the city. Granted, if I were able to reconfigure Springfield “SimCity” style, I would start with the location of its campuses; they are not quite close enough to each other to create a University District organically, and, with one exception, not close enough to any of the traditional neighborhood centers to combine with them.
Springfield was named just this week as one of the worst cities to attend college. While I am sure that the data used is hardly rock solid and conclusive, in this particular case I have reason to believe that the overall conclusion is correct. As much as I love my hometown, I cannot imagine coming here to attend college from a different region and having the “charm and beauty” of the place entice me to stay. The topic of Springfield, its colleges, and how and where they have grown is a broad one and would take, will take, many posts to explicate and untangle, but for now the topic at hand is how a lack of boldness has failed to harness the presence of these institutions of higher learning as catalysts in the city.
In a place with some self belief investors during the last decades of uber dorm growth would have created mixed use, walkable, faux town centers at locations like the intersection of Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard. The juncture of a fairly captive audience in the undergraduate population of Western New England University with a small retail center would have been exploited for maximum benefit. Don’t get me wrong, Hot Table makes the best panini, but the moment the paradigm is automotive the calculations for establishing competitive advantage give very little weight to distance. For proximity to matter enough to shift the balance in favor of the community people must stay out of their cars and on their feet.
At the same time the campuses of Springfield College and American International College are separated by just a few blocks, and while most of the streets connecting them are private residential streets, there are avenues, one of which could have, should have been turned into a walkable, university centered strip. The problem was, is, of course, that that would have been a bold move. The safer decision, in the short term, was to turn inward and fence off the campus from the community. The problem now is that, by fencing it off, the disparities which exist between the campus populations and that of their surrounding communities have increased, and opening up to their communities has become increasingly fraught.
The city of Springfield is a tiger which they have by the tail, to release it and face it must seem impossible to the administrations of their respective schools. At the same time they must know that if the city dies they may very well die with it. I know I am not saying anything that leadership at these schools is not aware of. The last 20 years have been a boom time for colleges such as these in most places, and yet they have barely managed to just survive, what will happen now that the baby boom echo has passed and what young people remain have lesser and lesser hope of ever recouping the money they would have to spend on a college education?
To me it seems fairly clear that these two colleges in particular, and to a lesser degree WNEU, will need to make this city an asset, or they will cease to exist. Perhaps the energy that will come into the downtown through the MGM project will grant them a few years of reprieve, but it certainly won’t be enough by itself in the long run. Nope. Over time Springfield College and AIC will have to join with each other and their neighborhood to create a place unto itself in order to survive. If they do I think that they could easily attract others from within the region to visit and even live there in order to share in its vitality. But the clock is ticking.