September 19, 2012

Taking Back Collegetown

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En route to a local social entrepreneurship conference earlier this weekend, I found myself knee deep in ideas. The three day affair featured inspiring speakers and people, all doing fascinating and exciting things with their lives. In stark contrast with the career fair earlier that week, I felt stimulated and as though, perhaps, I could even picture my future.

While driving to Saturday morning’s session with my friend Audrey, the excitement of the last two days’ discussions plus a bit of sleep deprivation had us rambling and brainstorming. We were right by Dewitt Mall, at an intersection, when it came to me.

As mentioned in a recent editorial, Collegetown looks meager. The empty storefronts lining our main streets are depressing. They do not adequately represent the vibrant community in which we live, but instead give the illusion of a ghost town. With the spirit of entrepreneurship in mind, I had an idea. What if students, the main inhabitants of this space, reclaimed Collegetown?

Let me first say that this is fundamentally far-fetched. I don’t intend to come up with a solution in this one column, nor do I think that it can come from just one person. My purpose is to begin a conversation.

There could be a business proposal competition, similar to the Big Idea Competition, but geared locally. Students can create their business plans and decide whether they would want to have a profit or nonprofit entity. This could be a way to promote interdisciplinary teamwork and collaboration, to have students work together on ideas and make them a reality. But most importantly, this could be the means through which students take ownership of a problem and help to find a solution.

So, how will it work? This is, of course, just an idea, but maybe alums that are entrepreneurs or that believe in experiential learning could be tapped to donate. It is important to note, though, that Cornell itself would not be expanding its reach into Collegetown, but that the money donated would be from people who feel that this is a worthwhile endeavor. The goal would be to create a grant that could cover (or heavily subsidize) rent at a storefront for one year.

Similar efforts have been put forth in Downtown Ithaca this spring with the “Race for Space.” According to a Sun article from the spring, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance intended to “pick the contestants with the best business proposals and reward them with, along with other incentives, one year of free rent in space in downtown Ithaca, including on the Commons.”

Once securing its grant, the winning team would create a carefully crafted business proposal, budget and other plans. Of course, this could be under the tutelage of local business owners who have been successful for several years, as well as professors with relevant academic perspectives. It would be important, though, that students also speak with business owners who did not fare as well, to learn about what they might have done better in retrospect.

On many levels, this is about students investing in their neighborhood and community. Instead of whining about all the vacancies, we can do something about it. We can try to reinvent this area.

As a senior beginning to think about next year and beyond, I have heard many conversations about “doing something real.” But why wait? Rarely will we be in the position where we are surrounded by thousands of people brought together with the sole purpose of education. The amount of human capital that exists here could fuel a number of great ideas. And those thoughts can be transformed into actions and in turn, create a movement.

Student-entrepreneurial projects are already happening all the time. For instance, a group of juniors and seniors have been collaborating to start a Collegetown gym. They are working with a landlord, looking for investors and moving forward to take action. Likewise, the Popshop on Dryden Road serves as an incubator where students can meet and discuss their ideas and inspirations together. Perhaps those ideas can be funneled towards developing the Collegetown landscape.

So, what’s missing from this place? How can we make Collegetown a vibrant neighborhood — a nicer place to live? Imagine a book store on Dryden or a supermarket on College? What about a community center where Green Café once was? I wouldn’t mind seeing a Salvation Army or a re-use store. The possibilities are endless. The time is now.

Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture, and planning. She may be reacched at kathanasiou@cornellsun.com. Kat’s Cradle runs alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou

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