Answering Your Pressing Questions: Downtown University Presence

Q: Does DSI want one or more universities to locate programs in the downtown neighborhood?

A: We sure do, and we’ve been on the record since at least 2013.  According to a 2017 study by the Brookings Institution, downtown higher ed programs outperform their peers, and have emerged as “key competitive differentiators” for cities. The study entitled, “Hidden in plain sight: The oversized impact of downtown universities,” highlights the important interplay between universities, startups, and local jobs. (Source: Why downtown universities help fuel the urban startup ecosystem)

The creation of downtown business incubator and social innovation hub Innovate Springfield by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln in 2015, which is now a part of UIS as of 2018, was the biggest step so far in a long dialogue. Innovate Springfield is now part of the Illinois Innovation Network, a State initiative led by the University of Illinois System to foster the breakthrough research, discovery, and entrepreneurship that drives progress, job creation and economic growth.

Q: Why has the conversation heated up now?

A: Governor Pritzker has been touring new downtown IIN hub locations in Chicago, Peoria and other cities and Springfield needs to finalize its location as well. UIS Chancellor Koch has been seeking a downtown location for more than a year.

Plus, the Governor and legislative caucuses passed a capital bill last year, which only comes around once a decade and includes potential funding for higher ed projects. Combining these two state funding streams could create an opportunity for University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University — the two largest higher ed systems in the state — to work more closely together in the areas of innovation and incubation.

This concept fits in brilliantly with what DSI has been preaching for a while — supporting and increasing the number of “Creatives in the Core” is the way to accelerate our local economy by supporting the businesses who are here and creating more jobs.

Q: I’ve read news reports by Bruce Rushton and Brenden Moore about a plan to locate potential buildings at the epicenter of 4th and Adams.  What’s up?

A: The staff of the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance met with property owners from 2nd to 4th Street, and Monroe to Washington, to share their organization’s ideas about a preferred location for potential university programs.

The universities have not formally selected any location yet.

DSI has not yet provided a formal proposal to the universities, Governor Pritzker or Senator Andy Manar (chair of the Senate’s Appropriations II Committee), because we await information about needed square footage. However, we are now working with SSGA, AIA Illinois, Landmarks Illinois, and Downtown Springfield Heritage Foundation to develop resources for the decision-makers when we, as a community, enter the final phase of determining the best location.

Those resources include analysis of other downtown neighborhoods across the nation that have a well-integrated higher ed presence, such as: Scott Community College in Davenport, IA; The University of Memphis in Tennessee; and the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Wisconsin.

No matter how quickly our proposals must gel together in the next few months, a process that includes transparent, collaborative community participation is vital.

Q: Where would a downtown university presence be located?

That has yet to be determined. The universities have not yet weighed in with space needs for programs or a preferred location(s).

It’s understandable why SSGA identified Fourth and Adams as an epicenter for any potential higher ed projects: it is near the State Capitol; who wouldn’t want to take advantage of the potential greenway left when Third Street rail ways are consolidated to 10th Street; and it is also an area that has already attracted private and city investment, and many new businesses, in the last decade, which would provide the “interplay” highlighted in the Brookings Institution report.

Q: What is guiding DSI’s participation in these conversations?

Downtown Springfield Inc is a nationally-accredited Main Street organization, a coalition of downtown businesses, and a champion for downtown investment for nearly 28 years. We have more than 150 business and non-profit members.

Our daily work is to celebrate and support the investment that entrepreneurs and residential developers have already made in the downtown neighborhood and to work to attract even more investment.

On December 12th, the DSI Board of Directors took this official position:

  • A vibrant university presence is invaluable to the long-term vitality of downtown Springfield.
  • In keeping with the strong sense of community that exists downtown, we believe transparent, collaborative stakeholder participation is instrumental in developing and nurturing a downtown university presence.
  • We look forward to working with all community partners to integrate the universities into downtown Springfield.

Downtown university programs could potentially turn surface parking lots into beautiful new buildings and vacant buildings into living laboratories. These gaps have previously been identified as black eyes in the SDAT Report, in the RUDAT report, and in the City’s 2017 Comprehensive Plan. It’s at least a good place to start the conversation about location.

As a neighborhood community, we are beyond excited to become the setting for Springfield’s “interplay” between small businesses, technology and higher ed research in the coming years. We look forward to working with the universities, as a community, to give Governor Pritzker a proposal he can get excited about, too.

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