Alma College on Broadening Campus Boundaries
When Alma College in Alma, Mich. realized that its move toward sustainability was not sustainable, it took a hard look at its relationship with the surrounding community. Separated by the Pine River to St. Louis, the site of a former chemical plant that is now in the midst of a Superfund clean up process, the college has long served as a resource for grant writing and environmental science and policy research to the community. With the formation of a Community Advisory Group, the college helped turn a $32 million clean up into a $100 million one. The college was also instrumental in helping St. Louis get a new water supply, and fought alongside the town against a 25,000-head factory farm facility. They won.
But all of this is not good enough, said the college's Murray C. Borrello, who presented alongside President Jeff Abernathy at the AASHE 2011 conference on Monday. "We needed to step it up a notch."
For years, the college literally built its buildings with their backs to the community, said Abernathy. Alma experienced a loss of major industry with the 1999 shut-down of the chemical plant, and the current economy has shuttered storefronts left and right. In the last few years, a plane crash killed several town leaders and its iconic Opera House burned down. With the town in bad shape, the college asked itself: How can we now step it up as a single community working to create a sustainable future?
Alma's first move was to relocate its campus bookstore and ice cream store downtown to help create "a seamless learning environment and restore investment and vitality to downtown," said Abernathy.
Next, the college built off this symbol of solidarity with the community by redefining its campus boundaries, linking its strategic plan with the county master plan. “We don’t want to think of ourselves as the ones who know better," said Borello. "We do have common futures that we need to connect with and collaborate to see through."
Collaborative work across the county has sparked further progress. A $1 billion investment on the part of two firms has led to a new wind farm that will include 133 turbines by June 2012. The college has also moved some of its administrative offices into a former pharmacy downtown. And perhaps most symbolic of all, the college has begun renovations to turn the beloved Opera House into student downtown loft apartments by 2014. The plan, said Abernathy, is to attract business investment to help with the renovations.
The Superior Street downtown loft apartments as they will look in 2014.
In a small Midwestern town that leans largely on the conservative side, this town-gown partnership has evoked the kind of bipartisan sustainability leadership that can successfully move the sustainability movement forward. For Borello, who directs the environmental studies program, the collaboration is a chance to show students who don't believe in climate change how sustainable development is not just about helping the environment, but also about saving money and creating jobs.
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