Can Arbutus be a college town? A class project spells out a vision for closer connections

After a recent visit to the University of Virginia, Jeremy Mosier, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, returned to campus with an observation.

"You feel really integrated with the community," he said about Charlottesville, Va. "That sense of community, that whole atmosphere extends beyond the classroom. It's a really cool place."

At UMBC, the sense of community doesn't extend far beyond Hilltop Circle, the road that loops around the campus on the doorstep of Arbutus, he said.

Through a class project, Mosier, and 14 fellow students, believe they have the start to a solution to building a sense of community.

The class, "Innovation, Creative Problem-Solving & the Socialpreneur," spent the spring semester examining Arbutus and its potential from three perspectives — students, the university and the community.

A socialpreneur, as UMBC senior Raymius Johnson explained, integrates social goodwill and entrepreneurship.

The class had considered evaluating other nearby communities, including Catonsville and Halethorpe, but chose Arbutus because of its proximity to campus.

Can Arbutus be a college town? Depending on the perception of the term, the students believe so.

"When people say college town, they usually think of bars, clubs, nightlife," said Michael Berardi, a junior studying global studies. "If you're looking at it from that definition, I don't think Arbutus has the potential to be a college town."

But the students do see similarities between their school and their nearby neighborhood. UMBC and Arbutus have been a stone's throw away from each other since the school opened in 1966, but the students argue it has been a struggle for the two groups to "intertwine," as they detail in a 63-page report titled, "Our-butus: Growing Community in a Classroom."

"If you're looking at from the perspective of a close-knit community where students are excited to go to these establishments that are nice restaurants, nice shops and places to study off campus, yes it can definitely be a college town that helps the students as well as the community members," Berardi said.

The class developed a mission statement and a plan that they hope can lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.

It includes using a vacant building along East Drive in the Arbutus business district to establish an Office of Community Affairs and open a student-run coffee shop with the working name of "OCA Mocha" for the community that can serve as a public meeting spot and performance space. The coffee shop would partner with a local bakery to collaborate, rather than compete, the students said.

A spokeswoman for the university said a lease has yet to be signed at the property, which was most recently a hookah lounge, but negotiations are in the works.

If the lease is signed, work could start in June and end in September, with an eye toward a grand opening during homecoming weekend in October, according to the class. The university has $50,000 budgeted to renovate the building.

"Our idea is it will really liven up the place," said Madison Koenig, a junior.

An Office of Community Affairs does not exist at UMBC — the closest entities they discovered were a neighborhood relations group and an Arbutus Engagement Committee, both of which have no permanently dedicated staff.

Krishna Gohel, a junior studying biological sciences, said these committees, which in recent months have put together events such as Arbutus Restaurant Week and the Quadmania festival to try to link the university and the local community, are temporary solutions.

"If UMBC isn't going anywhere and Arbutus is going anywhere, we need a permanent solution, not a temporary one," she said.

University president Freeman A. Hrabowski III said he supports the creation of the office and said it's "a priority." While the university doesn't have new money for it, he said revenue from the coffee shop, along with a more effective use of existing resources, could fund it.

The proposal also includes expanding the college's bike-sharing system from 10 bikes to 50, at first, then 200 by the end of spring 2019, as well as creating a new 30-minute bus route better linking the campus to the local business community.

The current Arbutus bus line extends into Irvington and Paradise and does not go into the Arbutus business district. The proposed route would also serve 582 students, faculty and staff living in the area, decreasing traffic on campus.

The bus route would cost $100,000 per year, and while there room's for it in next year's budget, the class has examined ways to mitigate the cost, said Berardi.

This could include expanding the university's student driver program to train more drivers, which in turn would provide job opportunities for students and cheaper labor for the university. If the route is open to the public, there could be opportunities for grant funding.

Students, including Jessica Sackey, a sophomore studying computer science, say without the presence of a college town, they are missing out of the "true college experience."

"It really is important to us that we can create an establishment that will only grow exponentially for future generations because it's bigger than us," she said. "These outputs aren't necessarily for us anyway. They're not something we'll see come into fruition for the next month or next year. It's something that will have to develop throughout decades and more."

Earlier this month, the class presented their vision for attracting students to Arbutus to the president's council, college faculty and staff and members of the community

Bettina Tebo, president of the Greater Arbutus Business Association, said the presence of the students could be beneficial to and transform the area.

"Just the mere basis of making Arbutus a destination will benefit the businesses in Arbutus," she said. "Any time you can make your town a destination for whatever reason, something good is going to happen."

Hrabowski said the university wants to move in the direction the students proposed and appreciated the way the class approached the issue. He was most impressed with how they understood the "balancing act" between connecting students, the university and the community.

"They needed to think about what could really work," he said following the students' presentation. "It took a lot of emotional intelligence to not simply say we need a bar for college students."

Gib Mason, the professor for the class, said the students' findings could create change in Arbutus.

"It's a unique problem. It's sticky. It's got a social bent and 'preneureal' bent," he said. "If the students do a good job, it could have impact on students, university and community."

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