A better downtown for UND students: University and city officials seek stronger ties
UND student Kelly Gahlon just completed her clinical work with the Grand Forks Public Health Department. She spent the summer at the County Office Building in downtown Grand Forks publishing educational material for refugees in the area and the medical professionals who serve them.
Now, as a registered nurse with Sanford Health Clinic in nearby East Grand Forks, Gahlon said she has no desire to leave the area she found her calling in.
“I enjoy this kind of setting and community,” she said. “It’s just big enough to get a variety of people but small-town enough so that you wave to people when they drive by.”
University and city officials agree the key to creating an even better partnership with downtown Grand Forks involves creating employment opportunities for students in conjunction with housing and university services.
Pete Haga is a city employee and president of the International Town-Gown Association, which helps organize partnerships between cities and the universities within them. Haga is a big proponent for creating more opportunities for students to thrive in downtown Grand Forks.
“I think the key is looking at the capacities downtown and how they could best serve faculty and students in an experiential learning situation,” Haga said.
Susan Walton, UND’s vice president for university and public affairs, said the university hopes to build on existing partnerships with downtown, as many faculty and staff — herself included — serve on a variety of downtown development committees and boards.
“The best downtown partnerships are those that provide a way to leverage the university’s capabilities to provide training or education to students and to do this in ways that also benefits the community,” she said.
City Council member Bret Weber said he would personally like to see public transportation, such as a trolley, taking people downtown from the UND campus. He said families and members of the work force would benefit from a trolley as well as college students.
“I want to go downtown for lunch and not have to deal with driving my car and parking,” Weber said. “I’d rather go straight from campus.”
City Administrator Todd Feland also said more public transportation would be a great link between the two places, along with coordinating more small concerts and events.
“I think the ultimate goal is for Grand Forks to become a better college town, to become more vibrant and to retain and attract more young people and professionals,” Feland said.
But for the time being, the university is pushing internships as a way to bring students downtown.
“We’re focusing on experiential learning opportunities and trying to do a better job of helping students learn about the opportunities that already exist,” Walton said.
Those opportunities include internships and work study programs such as the one offered by the Public Health Department.
Deborah Swanson, the department’s nursing and nutrition supervisor, said students work on projects such as designing brochures or compiling information for databases.
Some are even hired after graduation.
“That’s been a win-win for us because they already know the culture of our workplace,” Swanson said.
Haga said internships and work study programs could be complimented by providing student housing and services downtown as well.
“Alternative housing for students has really become popular and there have been some very interesting projects in other communities where they’ve really focused on university housing... in downtown areas,” he said.
Haga pointed specifically to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The college turned an old city building into a business incubator with student housing in the upper floors.
In the health department’s case, Swanson said most students wouldn’t live downtown solely because of an internship.
“I think they would choose to live there because there are a lot of other great things going on and having an internship downtown is an added benefit,” she said.
While some would like to see downtown Grand Forks and the campus more closely connected, UND has no plan in the foreseeable future to build student housing downtown or provide student services away from campus.
“Ultimately it’s going to take private enterprise to put that together, but I think it’s a great idea,” UND spokesman Peter Johnson said.
University officials said the Empire Arts Center and the Red River Boathouse are two attractions that already draw students downtown.
Johnson said the Greenway also provides UND with a great opportunity to reach students, but the problem lies in getting the word out about everything downtown has to offer.
Haga had similar sentiments.
“Downtown and the campus aren’t two distinct islands,” he said. “They’re part of a cohesive community.”