By Ben Harris
It’s a question raised time and time again: How can this university and the city of College Park improve student-resident relationships to build a bigger community?
About 40 students, faculty, residents and College Park officials met in October and came closer to answering this question by sharing their thoughts and ideas for the downtown stretch of Route 1. The Think-a-Thon, which took place at the College Park Community Center on Oct. 11, aimed to utilize art and culture to transform this area into a viable place in which city stakeholders of all types could immerse themselves.
Sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities Center for Synergy, the meeting featured a town hall style meeting and breakout group sessions that focused on how the city could better incorporate more children, family and senior-friendly cultural attractions.
Since three largely different populations occupy the city — students, residents and university employees — the challenge in transforming Route 1 into a culturally active location lies in creating cultural connections between each group, attendees said.
“The venues that are thriving eight months of the year are more for the college kids who are walking around,” said Robert Thurston, Lakeland Civic Association president.
At the Think-a-Thon, attendees wondered if locations like the Knox Boxes, which are being demolished, could be transformed into communal outdoor areas where students and families could spend time, perhaps with a central fountain or pond. And at existing community events such as the farmers market, they proposed implementing a space where a different groups could present a unique cultural performance each week.
Ideas of an art center available for people of all ages and a community center with more inclusive programming relating to Baltimore Avenue events were also among the recommendations.
“I want more public spaces where people can just stop and look at stuff,” said Avid Antonelli, a senior studio art major. “I want people to be able to be outside and not have something they need to use as a justification for being there.”
What surprised some attendees was the commonality between the university and city communities.
“I don’t think there’s much of a relationship between the students and the residents,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the arts and humanities college. “I was struck today by a man that said he was surprised to see that students wanted some of the same things that the community wanted. The fact that they share interests is important, but the notion that he was surprised is even more important.”
Cole Holocker, the Student Government Association’s director of city affairs, said the university must be proactive in creating an atmosphere that serves more than just university students.
“The university is an integral part of the College Park community, just like the College Park community is Student Government Association director of city affairs integral to our campus,” said Holocker who also serves as a student liaison to the College Park City Council. “It is imperative that the university be a part of the community, both in downtown and in the business community.
The reach of the university does not stop at where its property ends.”
Erica Lee Bondarev, a mother of two who commutes from Montgomery County to work at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, said she believes there is a lack of communication between the university and the outside community.
This can increase the notion of a bubble community centered solely on the university, instead of a welcoming community that utilizes the university as a means of attracting both students and non-students from outside of the campus.
Bondarev suggested making a centralized online hub for campus announcements, events and important information as a big step forward in reaching out past the immediate College Park community.
“I think there’s a missed opportunity to create community using virtual tools,” said Bondarev, associate executive director of strategic initiatives at the Clarice. “I think that will help provide a baseline to understand what’s going on and what’s available, as there is currently not a go-to place where you can learn about what the arts and culture in College Park look like.”