Sitting in her office on a recent day, Towson University President Kim Schatzel was excited. From the small conference table where she sat, Schatzel could see five cranes, only one of which was for an on-campus project.
She talked about huge investment being made in about a quarter-mile radius from the Starbucks at York Road and Burke Avenue. There’s Circle East, and Towson Row, and Towson Mews, and Towson Station, 101 York and, of course, a new Science Complex on Towson’s campus.
“That’s probably more per square foot than anywhere else in the state. People like to talk about Bethesda, people like to talk about Silver Spring. You draw a quarter mile around that? I don’t think so,” Schatzel said.
“And I would say that we have something to do with that when you consider all that investment going in. It’s because people think it’s a pretty good idea to be close to Towson University.”
The sentiment makes sense. Towson University, whose fall semester begins Aug. 26, has its own competitive sports teams, plus it hosts the Baltimore Blast, an indoor soccer team. There are new, free outdoor movie nights. The university has summer camps and free events throughout the year that are open to the community.
And, between a business- and entrepreneurship-focused development of the Towson Armory to include co-working spaces, workforce training and a business incubator, and the recently announced intended purchase of the Charles Schwab Building at 401 Washington Ave., there’s reason to believe that Towson University faculty, staff and students will be spending more time off-campus during the day.
David Marks, the Republican County Council member who represents Towson, said he thought that was all a positive. He said he liked the idea of more workers and other university affiliates spending time in downtown Towson during the day and on weeknights.
“Institutions of higher learning are relatively recession-proof. When we have an economic downtown, [Towson University and Goucher College] will insulate downtown Towson from negative economic effects,” Marks said.
As Towson University expands beyond its traditional footprint of York Road and Towsontown Boulevard, members of the campus community appear to be embracing and integrating into the surrounding area as much as possible. Schatzel said the armory project is meant to be a business engagement center that can “support workforce and economic development" for the area.
The relationship between Towson University and the greater Towson area has not been without tribulations, however, although Paul Hartman, who co-chairs the University Relations Committee of Towson Communities Alliance, said the relationship between campus and community used to be much worse.
“The university’s attitude was, once students crossed York Road, they had no jurisdiction and no responsibility," Hartman said.
For years, residents of surrounding neighborhoods have complained of disruptive parties, students wandering through neighborhoods after nights of bar-hopping, and of students’ cars taking up valuable parking in residential areas.
But now, Hartman said, the relationship is “going in the right direction.”
The social host ordinance, a county law, punishes landlords and residents if students throw a disruptive party in the community. There’s an online form and phone number community members can use to report off-campus incidents to university officials — and, yes, off-campus behavior can come with on-campus consequences, university officials said.
Also, there’s a shuttle that runs late at night between downtown Towson, where the bars are located, and a couple of student-heavy apartment complexes, to keep intoxicated students from stumbling through neighborhoods after a night out.
Volunteers and an open campus
There is more to the interactions between the university and the larger community than neighbors frustrated by noise or parking. Towson University has a strong history of volunteering and other community engagement efforts.
Perhaps the most obvious, especially to local neighbors, is The Big Event, an annual day where hundreds of students fan out into the community to help residents with odd jobs, like painting, weeding and mulching. The April 2019 Big Event was the university’s 10th.
And, since at least 2004, about 100 new students at Towson have spent their first few days on campus volunteering through a program called Project Serve.
“Our hope is that we give students a taste right at the beginning of being active in their communities,” said Stephanie Easterday, Towson University’s assistant director for community engagement.
Last year, for example, students volunteered at a local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. This year, students are slated to volunteer at local organizations like The Arc and Moveable Feast.
There are also hundreds of quieter partnerships between the university and the greater Baltimore region and the entire state.
Branded as “BTU-Partnerships for Greater Baltimore," Towson University has organized about 314 ongoing partnerships between the university and outside groups under one umbrella. Schatzel has deemed it one of her “presidential priorities.”
The programs range from a Model United Nations in Baltimore County Public Schools to providing health care services at the Goodnow Community Center in Baltimore, where the university’s Department of Nursing offers health promotion services and does general health assessments, checking blood pressure and other vital signs.
The interaction between university members and the greater community was occurring before Schatzel arrived, she said; she just wanted to help streamline the effort.
"I would always say that we have 300 partnerships and I don’t want 301,” she said. “This is not for me to set a path, the path has been set. It’s really to be able to lift up what we already have, and to be able to engender new initiatives by connecting them with those that are already present,” she said.
While still a few years off because of ongoing construction, Towson University does plan to construct a new building for its College of Health Professions. Completing that academic building also will come with a re-orientation of the entrance to the university.
Instead of thinking about visiting the university by parking in the University Union Garage off Cross Campus Drive, a “main gateway” to campus could be oriented to face the intersection of York Road and Burke Avenue, said spokesman Sean Welsh.
Schatzel said having that kind of “gateway” facing the community was an important symbol and would help invite people onto the campus.
“In all honesty, I want to open the campus up more," she said. "But it’s kind of hard when we have construction all over the place.”
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Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said that in her 13 years at the chamber, she has worked with a couple of Towson University presidents. "They’ve always been willing to support the business community, but they’ve stayed in their space, and we’ve stayed in our space,” she said. “Kim is aggressively trying to unite both of the communities, and we’re so grateful for that.”
Hafford said a lot of businesses and restaurants come to Towson because they know the university is nearby and provides customers, so she’s glad that the school is trying to be more outward-facing.
“It’s not the business community and the college; we’re just one big town,” she said.
As more privately owned student housing opens off campus — like the projects planned at 101 York and Towson Row — Schatzel said she thinks the university and the community will become more wholly integrated.
Hartman said the volunteer work that students, faculty and staff do is all well and good, and that it helps “improve the relations between community and students as a whole.” But, he said he views Towson as a community that happens to have a couple of colleges in it, not as a “college town” that exists solely to support academic institutions.
So, there still needs to be some attitude adjustment from students when they’re in the neighborhoods and commercial areas surround campus, he said.
“You don’t need to do public service all the time, but you need to be respectful,” Hartman said.