— Shepherdstown’s town-gown relationship continues to evolve.
As Shepherdstown and Shepherd University continue to successfully expand and become increasingly intertwined, the value of cooperative partnerships cannot be overemphasized. However, these two charming communities are not immune to growing pains. Tensions ran high at a town hall meeting in April, when a reoccurring issue was addressed during a proposal of collaboration to pave a new parking lot in the place of Sara Cree Hall. Shepherdstown Mayor, Jim Auxer, spoke about the historical prevalence of this persistent concern.
“Parking in Shepherdstown has been an issue for decades,” he asserted. “This town was built for horses, not cars. In 1955, there was a story in the Shepherd Pickett about parking!”
The University and the community have been working to find a solution to this issue, but with limited space and funding, it has been a slow process. Holly Morgan Frye, longtime resident of Shepherdstown and Shepherd’s assistant vice president for student affairs, took on an additional role in spring 2016 as Shepherd’s new director of community and congressional relations.
“The town has expressed interest in Shepherd providing more parking for students on East Campus—to avoid overflow of parking in town,” she said. “Through President [Mary] Hendrix’s leadership, we made the decision to level Sara Cree Hall and put in a temporary gravel parking lot. We then went to the town with an opportunity for them to invest in paving the parking lot, creating a more organized space for a greater number of vehicles.”
Frye and Shepherd Vice President of Administration, James Vigil, presented this idea to the Town Council at a town hall meeting. Vigil explained, “This lot will be for commuter students, which in addition to the increased bus service throughout campus, should alleviate some pressure that students place on town parking.”
Vigil reported that, like other Shepherd parking lots, this new lot will also be open to town throughout the summer and on weekends when there is not a home football game—as a courtesy to the town.
Auxer reported that the town administration was happy to help pay for this project. “Shepherd allowed the town to annex the residence halls to include the student population in Shepherdstown,” he said. “This has had a tremendous effect on the amount of video lottery subsidy we have received from lottery taxation. From 2010-2017, the Shepherdstown government has received a total of nearly 2.6 million dollars from video lottery revenue, and fifty-four percent of that money was due to annexation of the student residential population.”
Corporation of Shepherdstown Recorder, Lori Robertson, stated, “These funds keep the town beautiful—allowing us to plant trees and flower beds, paying for police overtime, donating to the fire department and to the library, plowing snow, and even building Town Hall.”
Auxer added, “The University never asks for anything, so we were very excited to work with them for this mutually beneficial parking lot.”
Finding Common Ground
Three Shepherd students were at the town hall meeting. Graduating senior class president, and community event organizer, Keira Cale, was one of them. She reflected upon varied perspectives regarding the impact of the university and students upon the town.
“As a student, it was disheartening to hear some community members discussing how students only use resources and provide little benefit to the town,” she indicated. “There seems to be a perception that when students come into town, they do little more than park, drink, smoke, and litter, but this isn’t accurate. We are a workforce. We are a customer base. We are neighbors, and we are part of the community.”
Many business owners, town administrators, and community members spoke highly of the impact of the university on the town, but many also feel there is need for greater collaboration and communication. Deb Tucker, owner of German Street restaurant, Bistro 112, serves on the Town Council and the Visitor Center Board of Directors, and recognizes both the mutual benefit as well as a need for increased work between the town and the university.
“I’ve only been here for six years, so I’m a newcomer business owner,” she said, “but from my perspective, there is room for improvement. Shepherd brings a huge wealth of activities and people, and there is a huge amount of things that the town offers the students. Between collaboration with CATF [Contemporary American Theater Festival] and other festivals, a winning football team, and frequent tourism, both parties can greatly benefit from the other. There is such an exchange of culture and life provided by the university and this cute little town.”
Some veteran business owners share similar sentiments, but also have some suggestions for finding common ground. Meredith Wait has been co-owner of Dickinson and Wait craft gallery for 27 years, and currently serves as president of Shepherdstown Visitor’s Center. She’s also a board member with the Jefferson County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and is previous president of the Shepherdstown Business Association.
“When I got here, half of Shepherdstown was boarded up,” she explained. “We need to figure out the marriage of a town that is tourism-based and university-based. They can be compatible. Retail is no longer the brick-and-mortar mom-and-pop shops where you can talk to somebody and pick something off of the shelf. Retail is on your computer in your pajamas in the air conditioning. Shepherd is not without their own challenges either, as they face increasing budget cuts from the state legislature. With such great impact on each other, we need to realize that we either all sink or we all swim.”
Another veteran, Pam Berry, owner of the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop Bakery, echoed Wait. “In the early 1990s, Shepherdstown was nearly empty, and the only thing keeping us alive was the college,” she noted. “As Shepherd has grown, the businesses have benefited, but Shepherd is also a business, and they have an investment in students spending money on campus. The college is not competing directly with the town except in food service. Competition is always a little difficult to handle, but we have to remember that if the college was not here, we wouldn’t be here. It’s our job as business owners to step up to that challenge to have a successful college and community.”
On the record, both business owners and students made suggestions to improve relations between the two communities. Berry extolled the value of business participation in student orientation or an on-campus festival in partnership with different businesses. Shepherd student leader, Devin Spinks—who attended the April town hall meeting to thank the town for the generous donation to Shepherd’s Alternative Spring Break Initiative (which allowed SU students to travel to southern communities in the state to do volunteer work)—suggested a collaboration between Shepherd and local businesses to allow meal plans to be used in restaurants in town, similar to other universities’ partnerships with chain restaurants.
Additionally, Cale’s challenge was for her fellow students to attend Town Council meetings, get involved with town events, volunteer, and organize their own programs.
When the students and professionals were asked to describe impacts that Shepherd and Shepherdstown have on each other, notions of exchanged character, energy, vibrancy, culture, and vitality were shared. Countless examples of collaboration were cited, including the success of so many festivals, races and walks, parades, community events, infrastructure projects, shared resources, and safety procedures.
Even the Shepherdstown Visitor Center, the heart of promoting Shepherdstown tourism, is now located within a Shepherd University-owned building (for a reduced rate). “We have a mayor that loves the university, and a president who loves the town,” said Frye. “Neighbors who are good to each other often have a much better experience. Think of Shepherd University without this quaint, historic, vibrant town. Now think of the town without this beautiful, ambitious, inspirational campus. I just can’t imagine one without the other.”By Rich Goodman