Posted on Jun 6, 1999

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — General Electric has pulled the plug on the Electric City, shifting its corporate campus to the Connecticut suburbs, scattering its factories around the world. But Union College cannot just pack up and move to a better place. It's stuck in Schenectady.

So in the tradition of the old GE slogan, Union president Roger Hull is trying to bring good things to life. He co-founded Schenectady 2000, a major effort to rejuvenate the city's dismal downtown. He launched the Union-Schenectady Initiative, pouring Union money into the blighted College Park neighborhood at the western edge of his campus. And he revived town-gown relations in a city where Union was once known as “the Island,” the ivory tower oasis in this urban desert. Mayor Al Jurczynski now calls the College Park project “the best thing to happen to this city in 50 years.”

“Union was always like the Vatican in Rome, a city isolated within the city,” said Jurczynski, who now refers to College Park as Dr. Roger's Neighborhood. “Now Roger's providing the vision for all of Schenectady. The rest of us are just scrambling to keep up.”

Union's newfound commitment to its rather un-Rome-like host city reflects a national sea change in higher education, as universities from San Francisco to Milwaukee to New Haven try to help the troubled communities they once tried to keep at a distance. Some are offering incentives for faculty and staff to buy houses nearby. Others are buying more from local suppliers, training local entrepreneurs or investing in local projects. Many are pushing students to do more community service. Several, including Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and Clark University in Worcester, Mass., are taking lead roles in major revitalization efforts.

It's a great deal for impoverished cities, which are increasingly reliant on the vast financial and intellectual resources of academia at a time when other industries are more mobile than ever. At the same time, more college presidents are beginning to realize that it's smart competition to address the world outside their gates, that students tend to prefer colleges in safe and vibrant neighborhoods. A Union survey found that 60 percent of the prospective students who turn down its admission offers do so because of Schenectady.

“Some of these schools have enormous investments in crummy communities,” said Liz Hollander, director of Campus Compact, a national town-gown organization that has expanded from 240 to 620 campuses since 1990. “Look, it's scary to come to Schenectady. So there's some idealism involved here, and there's also enlightened self-interest.”

The landscape has certainly changed from the “urban renewal” era of the 1960s and 1970s, when city schools such as Columbia and the University of Chicago tried to create buffers between their campuses and their neighborhoods. Now the emphasis is on development and on the duties of universities as citizens. Harvard's newest vice president, Paul Grogan, came from the Local Initiative Support Corp., a national bank for community revival projects; Yale vice president Bruce Alexander was a developer at Rouse Corp. In Connecticut alone, Yale has awarded cash grants to more than 400 faculty and staff members for buying homes in New Haven; Trinity has spearheaded a $175 million reinvestment in a decrepit section of Hartford, and the president of Connecticut College is now chairing the New London Economic Development Authority.

The Clinton administration has become involved as well, awarding more than $40 million in grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development's five-year-old Office for University Partnerships. The money is funding projects from an Arizona State University tutoring program in a Phoenix elementary school to a DePaul University welfare-to-work program in Chicago to a Stillman College entrepreneur training center in Tuscaloosa.

“It's the opposite of the old siege mentality, when you tried to get rid of the offending neighborhoods,” said National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities president David Warren, a former deputy mayor of New Haven and town-gown representative at Yale. “Now there's an effort to resuscitate neighborhoods. There's an embrace of the city.”

Schenectady could use a hug. Half a century ago, it was an engine of Upstate New York, with 40,000 jobs at GE and 12,000 at American Locomotive Co. Now GE has transferred all but 4,500 employees, AmLoc is long gone and the city's population has dropped 40 percent. Today, three-fifths of Schenectady's public school students get subsidized lunches, and its once-proud downtown is a desolate mix of dollar stores, pizza joints and vacant storefronts.

Just a few blocks and a world away from downtown stands America's first planned college campus, a 200-year-old gated enclave of expansive lawns and gray-stucco neoclassical buildings. Schenectady may be suffering, but Union isn't. Since Hull took over in 1990, its endowment has tripled, to $260 million. Hull has raised $50 million to renovate nine buildings, including the historic Nott Memorial, a 16-sided, multicolored Victorian Gothic extravaganza that had deteriorated into a pigeon cemetery but is now the focal point of the campus. Its giant dome is ringed by Hebrew words that seem to sum up Hull's decade at Union: “The work is great, the day is short, the master presses the workmen.”

Hull, who once sued the city over zoning, says he knows there will always be tensions between a downtrodden city with a $17,000 per capita income and an exclusive liberal arts college with a $30,000 tuition. (Some Union students refer to locals as “Doids,” short for “Schenectoids.”) But in his last job, as president of Beloit College in Wisconsin, Hull led a $6 million riverfront redevelopment. Even during his lawsuit against the city, he decided that once he had Union's house in order, he would try to help fix Schenectady's.

“The problem with this place was the attitude,” said Hull, 56, a child of refugees from Nazi Germany who once served as counsel to former Virginia governor A. Linwood Holton Jr. (R). “Everyone was stuck in the past, all that GE nostalgia. We had to get people thinking about the future.”

The first thing Hull did was send his students into the community. He reserved one day of Union's orientation for “mandatory volunteerism,” cleaning parks, planting flowers, painting bridges. Now 60 percent of the students perform community service on their own time.

Then Hull and a Union trustee launched Schenectady 2000 and successfully lobbied Gov. George E. Pataki (R) to create a local authority to float bonds for downtown projects. So far, the progress has been slow–an unused hockey rink has been converted into an indoor soccer arena, an abandoned building has been reborn as an arts center and a state agency has moved into a shuttered Woolworth's–but plans are in the works for a new train station, a new state office building, loft apartments and a multiscreen theater.

Finally, there is Dr. Roger's Neighborhood, which is now dotted with red diamonds that announce A Partnership at Work. Before the Union-Schenectady Initiative began, the College Park neighborhood had shifted from middle class and stable to poor and transient, with 188 of the 258 properties owned by absentee landlords. So Hull is spending $10 million to buy and rehabilitate 40 shabby two-family homes into attractive off-campus apartments, a security office, a Montessori school and a community center. Union will also assume the down payments and closing costs for any faculty and staff members who buy homes in College Park and will subsidize their mortgages as well. And in an unusual touch, Hull is offering free tuition for the qualified children of any homeowners who stay in College Park for more than five years.

This, Hull says, is real urban renewal, as opposed to the urban removal of the past. Property values are climbing. The College Park Neighborhood Association has been reborn after a long hiatus. The first 13 renovated homes will be ready for students in the fall.

“It's spectacular: Union is saving this neighborhood,” said association president Judy Goberman, 57, a musician who is restoring a grand but rundown Italianate Victorian she bought for $88,000. Even Marv Cermak, a grizzled Albany Times Union reporter who has been covering Schenectady for 44 years, said he thinks the initiative is changing the city for the better.

“I've looked for the rat in this, but . . . I can't find it,” Cermak said. “Is he doing it for selfish reasons? Of course. He doesn't want a ghetto on his doorstep. But what isn't done for selfish reasons? People give their girlfriends flowers for selfish reasons.”

Hull has hit some disappointments on the road to a renewed Electric City. Union's $10 million investment has yet to attract much private capital to College Park. He has also fought local politicians over his plans for downtown: Schenectady 2000 has support from the Republican mayor, county Democrats and the Republican state senator, but it has battled the independent city manager, county Republicans and the Democratic state assemblyman.

But the keys to Hull's plans for Schenectady may lie with his constituents at Union. Two years ago, Hull wanted to relocate the school's hockey rink in College Park; students protested because of safety. Now he is floating the idea again, and students seem to be warming to the idea. But there is widespread impatience with the pace of change in Schenectady, even for a civic-minded student like Ed Lallier, a junior who lives in a community service house and organized a lecture series on town-gown relations.

“It's good that Union's trying to help, but the kids still hate Schenectady,” he said. “I mean, we don't care what downtown will look like in 2010. We want a decent restaurant now.”