College Park shows how college towns are becoming hubs of innovation

College Park shows how college towns are becoming hubs of innovation
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Situated just outside of the nation’s capital, College Park, Maryland, home of the University of Maryland, is on the verge of a transformation. A guest post by Patrick Wojahn, Mayor of College Park.

U.S. cities continue to reinvent themselves and demonstrate economic resiliency. While The University of Maryland-College Park (UMCP) has long had a reputation as a high-class research institution, its status has had a limited impact on the community surrounding it. With the evolving partnership between UMCP and the City of College Park, however, College Park is on the verge of becoming a hub for new innovation in the Washington, DC area.

College Park, and other college towns like it, are on their way to becoming centers of the regional and national innovation economy.

Steps toward an innovation economy

Although there are many different ideas of what a classic “college town” is, College Park has long been considered in terms of the elements that it lacks. Although about 30-35% of undergraduate students live on campus, and many more in the surrounding neighborhoods, College Park has historically lacked the eclectic cultural opportunities that make a college town great. Now, however, the University of Maryland is increasing its investment in opportunities for local innovation, and the city is supporting businesses that want to stay and work here. As a result, more non-student residents as well as businesses are relocating to the area. College Park is rebuilding itself as a college town based on an innovation economy.

While the number of employment opportunities in College Park and its immediate surroundings has increased with a new research park and nearby federal government facilities, it has rarely been seen as a hub for innovation. Most of the innovators who have gotten their start in College Park, such as Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, and Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, left College Park before they started the innovative work that made them famous.

This is changing. Recent upstarts in College Park, including FlexEl Battery, MedPrint, a medical 3-d printing program, and the Food Recovery Network, are all building their companies within College Park. College Park is becoming an example for college towns across the country, demonstrating towns how can best take advantage of the resources a major research university has to offer.

Public-private partnership

A key part of this is the strong partnership that has developed in recent years between UMCP and the City of College Park. This partnership is enabling the change that will make College Park an innovation center in future decades, and the fruits are already apparent.

Nearly half a dozen cranes currently tower over the chapel and greens on the UMCP campus. Several of these are new academic and research buildings, such as the Edward St. John Learning Center and the A. James Clark Engineering Hall, and some are part of a new commercial center in downtown College Park. Largest among those buildings is a new hotel and conference center.

More construction is on the way. The convention center will be the centerpiece of an innovation district, which already includes businesses such as the FlexEl Battery headquarters. In the next few years, the innovation district will include office space for innovative businesses growing out of research at the UMCP campus, co-working space, and incubator space for business concepts to develop.

College Park is setting the stage to facilitate the innovation economy and allow companies to stay in the city as they grow. The city and university are working together on an application for a Regional Institutional Strategic Enterprise (RISE) Zone, which will provide a range of tax credits and other incentives to businesses wishing to stay in College Park. These incentives will help create thousands of new jobs.

These companies will help create a renewed commercial center for College Park as well. The Hotel at the University of Maryland will include two high-end restaurants and a spa. The conference center will support at least two more high-end hotels and bring thousands of people to the city on a regular basis to patronize city businesses. Plans are in the works to redevelop significant areas of downtown College Park, including a new City Hall and public square, a grocery store, and multi-family residential development to accommodate young professionals who want to live near this growing innovation hub.

Transportation is innovation economy’s lifeblood

The change is perhaps most apparent in the ongoing efforts to redevelop underdeveloped space around the College Park Metro station. Two years ago, a request for development proposals here brought in one bid, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Recent requests for proposals for development (one Prince George’s County proposal for private land north of the station and one for the Metro property itself) were much more successful and will likely bring in the first true transit-oriented development ever at this decades-old Metro stop. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan recently approved the development of the new purple line, a light rail system that will include a stop in College Park.

Also changing is the opinion that UMCP faculty and staff about the city around them. As recent as five years ago, academic leadership at UMCP would actively discourage new hires from living in College Park. Currently, only 3-4% of UMCP faculty and staff live in College Park. Last year the College Park City-University Partnership instituted, with support from the University and a grant from the State of Maryland, a program to provide $15,000 forgivable loans to University employees who buy homes in College Park.

Academic and Economic Revitalization

This sea of change – opportunities for innovation, an increasingly vibrant downtown with a broader range of amenities for UMCP faculty, students and staff, and a greater range of new commercial businesses – will help establish the University-based culture that college towns are typically known for. The College Park of today is already unrecognizable to people who graduated even five or ten years ago, and the College Park of tomorrow will be unrecognizable to today’s graduates.

This is important not just for the D.C. Metropolitan area, which, according to a recent economic competitiveness report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, needs to collaborate to diversity beyond reliance on the federal government to remain economically competitive.  It is important for our nation’s economy, which is increasingly relying on innovation in the tech sector for our national economy to thrive.

College Park is set to become a model for how college towns can collaborate with the universities in their communities to transform their cities and fuel a new innovation company across the region and across the United States.

Patrick Wojahn is Mayor of College Park, Maryland, and also serves as chair of the National League of Cities Transportation and Infrastructure Service Policy Committee. Patrick works full-time as Director of Government Relations at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, advocating for funding for trails and bicycle and pedestrian networks on the federal, state and local levels. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Patrick received his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 2002.

Categories: Economics, North America

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.