Albion College Leaves the Light on for You

A college president in small town Michigan pulled together a team of unlikely partners to save the school and rebuild the community.

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“We only have one rule: you have to keep your porch light on.”

In the Harrington neighborhood in Albion, Michigan, prospective residents are getting a hell of a deal. Albion College is renovating dilapidated homes and selling them to staff and faculty at half price, explains College President Mauri Ditzler. The only stipulation is the porch light. It’s one part of the college’s extensive plan to help revive the former steel town – and get a few lights back on in a struggling neighborhood next to campus.

It seems like a fitting mantra for a town that has been working hard to keep the lights on for decades, after losing one-third of their population when thousands of steel jobs disappeared – shrinking from about 12,500 people in 1960 to around 8,500 today. Residents grappled with declining job prospects, the city struggled to maintain infrastructure and services (with a dwindling tax base), Albion College was facing declining enrollment, and construction had all but stopped.

Mauri Ditzler, president of Albion College.
Mauri Ditzler, president of Albion College.

“When the first home broke ground [in Harrington],” says Ditzler, “I’m told that it had been eight years since a new house was built in Albion.”

It’s an all-too a familiar story for small-town America. But Albion’s renewed partnership between college and community has flipped that story on its head, as the town brings in millions of dollars of development, new jobs, and new homes.

Helping the community wasn’t always a priority for Albion College. But a few years ago, college leaders realized that they could not attract students, faculty and philanthropic dollars to a college in a downtrodden town. As they started on this new mission, they chose a rather unusual first step: selling a country manor.

“The thing that was the most important to me personally when all this began, was I felt that the president of the college needed to live in Albion,” recalls Don Sheets, chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees. “That’s a big ‘no’ vote on the town if the president won’t live there.”

The president of Albion College, the town’s largest institution, had for years been living on a college-owned country manor outside Albion. Given that the college’s mascot is “The Britons,” the grand estate seemed somewhat in line with the English theme, but it wasn’t in line with the new mission to rebuild the town. The board sold the property, moved the presidential home into town, and hired a new president (Ditzler) who would embrace an “open door” policy with campus and community. The house sits prominently on a major road on the west end of campus, the first in the row of newly shining porch lights in the Harrington neighborhood. (Disclosure: The college president is also the author’s father.)

The symbolism of this vote of confidence was critical to improving the strained relationship between the blue-collar town and its white-collar college, says Sheets. “It had an emotional effect on the town,” he says. “It was the first clarion signal to the community that something would change.”

Around the same time, the Albion Community Foundation was working on creating their own surprising symbol of change. In the midst of one of Albion’s toughest times, they managed to raise $4 million to restore the Bohm Theatre, a centerpiece of downtown Albion. This was a massive sum for such a small, economically challenged community. With the restoration, the community achieved something monumental for the sake of preserving one of the city’s cultural icons.

Much like moving the president’s residence into town, the Bohm restoration was invaluable on a symbolic level.

“If it wasn’t for the Bohm getting done, a lot of [recent community improvements] wouldn’t have even been thought of,” says Samuel Shaheen, an alum of the college and one of the primary real estate developers in Albion’s renaissance.

Ditzler agrees. “The story the town tells about itself is incredibly important,” he says, and these victories were part of what started to change that story. Now, instead of a declining town with an isolated college, many began to see themselves as a place with promise – a place that could raise money and work together, with an engaged institution ready to support the hard work of fixing the town.

There were still plenty of people who didn’t believe yet, but many of those doubts were soon erased in a big way.

This fall, Albion had one of its biggest wins with the groundbreaking for a $10 million downtown hotel. The non-profit Albion Reinvestment Corporation (at the time called Forks Associates) had for years been laying the ground-work downtown by acquiring and stabilizing deteriorating properties. This important work came to light in a big way when they partnered with the college to bring in the hotel. The size of the project was unprecedented for the town, and was made possible by funding from the college, the state of Michigan, and private investors, including Shaheen, who is developing the project at cost. The hotel finally convinced skeptics that things were moving forward.

Groundbreaking for the Albion Hotel.
Groundbreaking for the Albion Hotel.

“People didn’t believe it [would happen] until the construction equipment was on site,” says Shaheen.

This hotel comes at the heels of a string of other successful projects in the past two years, all of them a partnership between college and community. The college and its donors bought five vacant downtown storefronts and filled them with classes and administrative offices. New restaurants like a brew pub and a deli are soon opening, in a town that used to have just half a dozen restaurants. The college’s newly expanded equestrian arena promises to fill up the new hotel several times a year during multi-state horse shows. The Albion Reinvestment Corporation secured grants for commercial façade improvements, so even the storefronts still waiting for an occupant are contributing to the downtown ambiance.

Albion College started offering a free four-year college education for any kid from town that meets admission requirements. The “porch light” project in the Harrington neighborhood has grown to include six square blocks, including properties purchased from the Michigan land bank with donations from friends of the college. A renovated historic building downtown will soon serve as the physical representation of the town/gown relationship – the Ludington Center will provide a hub for interaction between students, faculty and community members.

The accomplishments are impressive, but with so much change, there is naturally some anxiety among long-time residents. “Albion has lost so much…there’s a fear of losing control over everything,” says Sheryl Mitchell, Albion’s city manager.

That’s why the city is making a concerted effort to get more people involved in community improvement decisions. “If they don’t come to you, you have a responsibility to go out to them,” says Mitchell. The city is holding town hall meetings and community forums out in the neighborhoods, often in the churches. “There are still pockets of distrust” Mitchell acknowledges, “but I think there’s been a change in the mindset.”

Shaheen, for one, is glad to see this focus on the people of Albion. “Building a building is easy. Building the community back is tough,” he says. “The next phase has to be about people.”

Yet in a way, Albion’s success has always been about the people. Money, land and buildings have played a big part, but it’s the people handling those assets that have made the difference.

“When we started this,” recalls Sheets, “what we needed is expertise: how to get tax incentives…how to deal with zoning issues. We began recruiting people to the [college board of trustees] that could bring these skills. Then you have a person like Sam [Shaheen] sitting at the table who knows how to get these things done and will be there for the duration of the project.”

According to Shaheen, the same is true on the other side of the table. “Moving the president’s house,” he says, “would have been purely symbolic if the president was not [Ditzler].” That capital project needed a person behind it who believed in the mission, and could connect to the community. “[Community members] really like and respect him,” Sheets notes, “and that makes all the difference in the world.”

For those looking to replicate Albion’s work, this is both bad news and good news. Shaheen, Ditzler, and the many other key players in this story brought a unique mix of talent that would be tough to replicate precisely.

But the good news is, there is one recurring theme: “People playing a part in things that they wouldn’t have normally done – that’s the single reason that this community is turning around,” says Amy Deprez, director of the city’s economic development corporation.

Colleges don’t normally rebuild neighborhoods or fund downtown hotels, but this one did. Developers don’t normally work for no profit in the town of their alma mater, but Shaheen did. And everyday residents don’t normally become real estate developers to save their town, but Bill Dobbins was one who did.

“We wouldn’t have done this normally,” says Dobbins, a co-founder of the Albion Reinvestment Corporation, an investor in several downtown projects, and a long-time resident. As a retired M.D. and a co-owner of a manufacturing business in Albion, he didn’t have the typical background of a developer. But he felt a responsibility to “step up,” he says. “I saw the deterioration in the community. You sit back and think…this isn’t going right and we ought to do something about it.” He pauses. “What’s that quote? ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’” That seems to be the motto in Albion these days.

 

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