Making the most of a downtown university

Growth can take many forms, and for the University of Saint Francis (USF), it means a larger physical footprint and an expansion of academic programs.

But not just anywhere.

Officials say they are being strategic in choosing downtown as an extension of their main campus.

“We feel very fortunate to have made the move downtown,” says Rich Bienz, USF’s Vice President of Finance and Operations. 

USF currently occupies nearly two blocks of downtown Fort Wayne, not far from Parkview Field, which has been touted as a catalyst in the urban core's decade-long revitalization. 

Like the minor league baseball park, USF’s westward development was also an abstraction long in the making before it came to fruition.

According to Bienz, the university had its eye on downtown as early as 2010 or 2011. You could say the institution was ahead of the curve in terms of its vision, he explains.

For example, Parkview Field was still very new at the time, and the Ash Skyline Plaza hadn’t even broken ground. Several housing developments and restaurants that exist today were mere concepts at that point, too.

USF was forward-thinking and wanting to engage the community. 

“We had meetings with several community leaders,” Bienz says.

At these meetings, the rhetorical question USF's administration posed was: "What would it mean to have a downtown university?”

It became apparent there was both an interest from the business community at large and a need on the part of USF.

According to Bienz, the administration was looking to provide more internships and co-ops to students, and a downtown location meant close proximity to several large employers. The university was also interested in expanding its arts programs with greater access to resources like Artlink and the Arts United Campus.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and it just so happened that two downtown buildings became available around the same time.

The Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce announced plans to relocate from its building at 826 Ewing Street, and the historic Scottish Rite Center at 431 W. Berry Street also became available. Within the following months and years, USF purchased both.

The former Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce building at 826 Ewing Street.

In 2012, the Catholic university turned the Scottish Rite building into the Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center. Continuing that momentum, it acquired the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce building, which now houses the Keith Busse School of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership.

The move not only puts USF students and faculty in the heart of the action downtown, but also it allows the university to contribute to city's momentum. 

Across the country, downtown universities have served as catalysts for commercial and creative growth, fostering startup ecosystems and inspiring economic success. The Performing Arts Center is known for housing its Media Entrepreneurship Training in the Arts (META) program.

Today, both USF buildings are bustling and full of activity most days during the academic year, bringing new life, events, and opportunities to downtown Fort Wayne. 

For example, the USF Performing Arts Center is known for housing its Media Entrepreneurship Training in the Arts (META) program. 

Last fall, META and Music Technology students announced the launch of their record label, Marble Lounge Records, which laid its business foundations during the fall semester. The label's current focus is promoting its first album with the local band, Rosalind & the Way.

As USF and downtown continue to grow together, a 2017 study by the Brookings Institution suggests that close collaboration between city and university leaders will be key to capitalizing on the success of an urban campus.

Researcher Scott Andes tells Curbed that universities need to accelerate commercialization, connect with city resources, and incentivize entrepreneurship instead of assuming that mere proximity to downtown will be productive. In turn, cities should include universities in their development plans, connect them to regional economic clusters, and incorporate them in agendas for growing nearby neighborhoods.

"The tech ecosystem that leaders in academia and city hall want only happens when both sides communicate and collaborate," the article says.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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