Anchor institutions—a term used to describe public and nonprofit hospitals and universities—are today widely recognized for their role in community economic development. But they have the potential to do a lot more.
As Living Ciites President Ben Hecht noted in a blog post this past January, “Today, the largest economic force in a huge number of America’s 100 largest cities is a university or hospital.” Yet, Hecht added: “Despite this reality, few, if any, regional economic development strategies are built around these stable and rooted ‘anchor’ institutions.”
Of course, some exemplary efforts do exist. Among these is Syracuse University, which my co-author Rita Hodges of University of Pennyslvania's Netter Center for Community Partnerships and I profiled in a book published this fall, The Road Half Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads.
Led by President Nancy Cantor, who came to Syracuse in 2004, Syracuse University’s approach has been highly collaborative, working with community groups, business, government, nonprofits and schools to identify common goals.
Key porgrams have included Near West Side and South Side neighborhood strategies; the Connective Corridor project, which invests in public art; public transportation, streetscape and façade improvements, and new facilities to link the university and downtown; and Say Yes to Education, a program that supports K-12 public schools in myriad ways, including by covering college tuition costs for graduating seniors. Noted David Rubin, former dean of Syracuse’s communications school, the university has been ”a kind of surrogate city government and in a sense county government for eight years.”
As this briefing paper outlines, to help push forward this work, in 2007, Syracuse invested $13.8 million in funds it received from a New York state loan forgiveness program for universities willing to devote loan repayments to local economic development.
The university’s investment leveraged an additional $42.2 million and total investment now tops $70 million. In the Near West Side, benefits have included the conversion of two major warehouses into mixed-use facilities, the development of 60 new or rehabilitated homes, and $3.3 million in green infrastructure investment.
Syracuse University has also made additional investments—for example, providing a $207,000 grant to help start a South Side food co-op.
In a recent Huffington Post article, Cantor noted that universities today face “an existential crisis,” in which universities are asking, “who are we, what are we trying to do, and how do we measure up?” On one hand, noted Cantor, is the push for cost cutting. Yet, Cantor added, there is another path that seeks to answer a much different set a questions, such as: ”Can we be good partners in communities, collaborating to turn our schools, economy, and environment, around?”
Syracuse is not alone. Living Cities, for instance, cites additional promising efforts in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. But neither is Syracuse in the majority.
Public policy can help. In a recent briefing paper, Ira Harkavy and Rita Hodges advocate creating a federal commission and awarding prizes for exemplary work. In The Road Half Traveled, Hodges and I outlined a broader policy agenda to leverage anchor institution economic power for community benefit.
Syracuse shows how this could work. Cantor’s leadership was critical, but the loan forgiveness program provided a very helpful push. The program not only got the university to commit resources, but unleashed much greater private investment as well.
But while policy can help, community activists have an important role to play. Simply put, absent community pressure, the cost-cutting and efficiency advocates will surely prevail.
Given the resources at stake—nearly $400 billion in purchasing power among universities and another $750 billion among hospitals—there is little time to lose. Indeed, given government resource constraints, leveraging anchor institution resources is likely to become an increasingly important part of successful community economic development strategies.