Last month, Howard University announced plans to redevelop its longstanding dormitory Meridian Hall into a $22 million private residential facility. Howard will keep ownership of the land and facility, but a real estate development firm will renovate and lease the former student living quarters as luxury condominiums, in an area in the full throes of economic redevelopment and changing demographics in race and class.
Howard is the biggest institution engaged in this kind of entrepreneurial re-imagining of space, land and assets. But it isn’t the first. Miles College in Fairfield, Al., one of the city’s largest employers since the departure of its Walmart store, has partnered with public and private entities to invest in community housing and resources to spur economic growth in the city.
In Baltimore, plans created more than 20 years ago to redevelop a commercial strip next to Morgan State University’s campus have sped towards a sorely needed reality. A facility for its School of Business and a new pedestrian bridge extending between it and the main campus are now completed, while neighbors and legislators iron out the details of how new business and increased student housing will impact the condition and tradition of the Northwood community.
Black colleges around the country are handing over auxiliary services like bookselling and food service programming to outside vendors like Perkins Management Services, which took the lead in helping Johnson C. Smith University to rehabilitate dining and shopping in a long-depressed corridor in Charlotte’s West End.
All of these efforts are examples of black colleges working to make communities more livable and profitable. They all seek to create much-needed revenue streams for schools hard hit by federal and state budget cuts, falling enrollment, and stubborn state legislators who refuse to invest in HBCU and predominantly black communities.
They are part of a growing trend among HBCUs embracing the role of economic anchor in these communities, and understanding that without ownership, the case to close these schools is easier made by jaded consumers, racial opponents and political will. Owning and leasing space close to, or on the HBCU campus brings the community closer to the campus, and exposes the HBCU mission in ways that speak beyond race, culture and mission — they speak in the universal language of real dollars and economic sense.
When money talks, stakeholders of all intentions and persuasions listen closely. No lawmaker is willing to lose votes, no entrepreneur is willing to lose money, and no community member is willing to lose value on a home so long as our schools are effectively presenting the case for communities to more vibrantly and profitably, live and grow.
This means those HBCUs eliminating food deserts, like Paul Quinn College in Dallas, or developing positive economic outcomes for agribusiness owners, like Kentucky State University, or new facilities which can attract tourism and conference revenue, like Virginia State University’s new multi-purpose center, are making themselves inextricably linked to the communities around them. And this community dependency will help to keep them politically, socially and economically alive, even as higher education shifts and changes as an industry.
Hampton University, under the entrepreneurial vision of President William Harvey, has long modeled institutional investment strategies for black colleges. With commercial real estate holdings including apartments, restaurants, hotels and office space, their endowment, their students, and the city of Hampton, have benefited for years as a result of the university’s investment in job creation and its tourism imperative.
Thankfully, other black colleges are following the model, and if they can keep it up, black families and communities will reap great rewards as a result.