Town and Gown Association of Ontario 2013 Symposium Bridging Our Future, May 12 – 14, 2013, Notes from AWWCA Board Member Vinnie Welsh

Town and Gown Association of Ontario 2013 Symposium

Bridging Our Future, May 12 – 14, 2013

Notes from AWWCA Board Member Vinnie Welsh


Windsor is a community that many outsiders may think they know.  It of course has a history as a car town and border town and has certainly seen its share of economic issues over the past several years.   Windsor sees itself as sharing an urban downtown area with Detroit, which is directly across the river.  Residents from both cities travel back and forth mainly via a tunnel that crosses the river into the downtown core of each city.  Much of the symposium this year centered on the rise of the downtown campus and how the city, college, and university have created a joint venture to meet the needs of each of their constituencies.

The Rise of the Downtown Campus

Mayor Eddie Francis; Dr. John Strasser, president, St. Clair College; and Dr. Alan Wildeman, president, University of Windsor

The mayor was elected 10 years ago with a vision of revitalizing Windsor, reforming its finances, and reducing Windsor’s long-term debt.  The vision of building a modern, competitive city for commerce and job creation was initiated by working with the casino to expand into a large convention and entertainment facility.  Caesars Windsor is now Ontario’s third largest convention centre.   St. Clair College and the University of Windsor were engaged early in the process.  As described by the participants, it has resulted, and is resulting, in many state-of-the-art facilities that support the city and the educational institutions in downtown Windsor.  The speakers noted that the vision alignment was not easy and took many closed-door meetings with more-than-frank discussions.  Each participant had to recognize that it would always put its constituency first.  The result is that the downtown campuses for the two institutions are living laboratories providing real-life experience for students and much-needed services for the city and downtown residents.

The University of Windsor’s main campus is about the same distance from downtown as McMaster is from downtown Hamilton.  The City of Windsor has turned over many buildings for $1.00 to the schools, which in turn are transforming them into state-of-the-art facilities.  Among the revitalized buildings are the former bus depot, the old Windsor Star building, and an old armory.  The city is also building new community facilities, including a state-of-the-art aquatic centre. The former small convention centre has become the St. Clair Centre for the Arts and is a joint community and college facility.  The college provides all of the food service through its hospitality and tourism program.  It is now a popular venue for weddings and hosts several cultural events. Approximately 10 per cent of students have been moved to the downtown campus, where they are involved in programs such as health services, hospitality and tourism, social work, and a centre for recruiting and supporting international students.   New commercial businesses such as drugstores and grocery stores are coming into downtown to support the 2,000 plus students new to downtown.  Because of these revitalized areas, downtown residents are happy, as they are now receiving services they previously did not have, and students are happy because they are being welcomed into the downtown community.  It has been a positive experience for all.

Universities and Downtown Development

Dr. Leo Groarke, Univeristy of Windsor

This presentation focused on downtown campus development and talked about Windsor, Laurier, and Brantford.   Dr. Groarke noted that it is important for the community to maintain some of its wonderful architecture but also for the institutions to move programs or add programs that benefit the community and that restoration of the buildings fit the educational needs.  Many of the buildings are in very poor shape, and the cost of restoration can be prohibitive for the institutions.  In many case, some compromise has been required, such as recreating building façades rather than restoring them.  He talked about recognizing the politics at play for all parties.

Managing Housing in a University Town

Ho Tek, Domus Student Housing, Waterloo, Ontario

Ho and his partner are young entrepreneurs who manage 3,000 rooms in houses and purpose-built facilities.  He focused on what students expect in housing and what the typical student has been experiencing in the past few years.  He noted they are getting younger in terms of simple life skills, such as how to change light bulbs, and they demand access to technology.  For example, Domus managed two new buildings, both of which were late being completed.  One had no Internet access for the first week, the second no hot water for three weeks.  They got more complaints about the lack of Internet than hot water.  He said the students also feel entitled and are very self-centered.  The parents fight all their battles, whether it is phoning professors about marks or calling the property-management company to intervene in roommate differences.  He noted that they no longer call them “helicopter” parents but “Black Hawk Down” parents.  Students are willing to pay for high-tech buildings with facilities they have at home like granite counter tops and exercise rooms.  There has been a huge increase in Waterloo of purpose-built student housing, and the city has changed zoning to make this possible.  Most of these buildings have five-bedroom, five-bathroom apartments, not because of a demand of the market but because this is the maximum number of bedrooms allowed by zoning.  Homes that had been used as rentals and are the furthest from campus are reverting to families.  It is important to recognize that Waterloo has had a lodging-house rule in place for many years and therefore many of these houses, though run down, still have their original layout; they have not had every conceivable space turned into bedrooms.

Community Outreach Programs

Various Panels and Presenters

Five panels that focused on community outreach and research programs, which range from successful school events where community members are invited and participate at a high rate to social-service programs that support students and the community.

Some of the events include food drives, a blues fest, family fun days, and golf tournaments.  Downtown facilities and city services are used when possible, and there are partnerships.  The largest event is the Coming Home Music Festival sponsored by the University of Windsor Student Alliance as part of welcome week.  It hosts between seven and 10 thousand students and community members on a Wednesday night at a riverfront venue downtown (across from the casino).  The school code of conduct is in place, as it is at all university-sponsored events where alcohol is sold.  Police, fire, and emergency personnel all discussed management of the event, and all were enthusiastic about its success.  This will be the fourth year for the music festival.

Two presenters from the Aboriginal Education Centre talked about the challenges and successes they have had in Windsor.  Only 50 per cent of aboriginal students graduate from high school, but the more exposure they have to campus life, the more likely they are to continue.  They discussed programs where students are given a financial incentive to stay in high school, are mentored by current aboriginal university students, and are given opportunities to experience campus and city life.

Mary Medcalf, field administrator, School of Social Work, University of Windsor, gave an impressive presentation on how experiential learning through high-value community placements has been a benefit to the university and to the downtown community.  The McMaster Students Union representatives  at the symposium were very excited by the possibilities.  While Ms. Medcalf’s main responsibility is the School of Social Work, she has been instrumental in developing programs involving other faculties.  Some of these programs include food co-operatives, clothing banks, community gardens, literacy clinics, and legal clinics.  Through Community Partners for Applied Research and Consultation, there have been many research opportunities for the university and many improvements for low-income neighbourhoods in downtown Windsor.

Potential Health Risks of Recreational Drug Use and Related Harms

Dr. Bruce McKay, Wilfred Laurier University

Dr. McKay, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Wilfred Laurier in Waterloo, has done extensive research on university students’ use of alcohol and other drugs.  This extremely interesting presentation focused on the importance of the person’s age when first intoxicated.  He noted that binge drinking causes havoc in the near-campus communities as well as for students.  The typical Laurier student is white and middle class or privileged, but his research shows thatthe main problems are created by students who first became intoxicated at age 12 or 13 and then come to university with the experience.  There is a huge correlation of this group to lower grades, other drug use including prescription drugs, and sexual assaults or sexual experiences they regret.  They drink to get drunk and drink several times per week.  They are most likely to be male and BA students (they have more free time than other faculties), to have grown up in a wealthy neighbourhood, to have first gotten drunk at an early age, and to be unconcerned about being successful.  He talked about strategies that have helped several communities in the United States mitigate problems.  These include:

  • Change frosh-week activities to alcohol free.  Psychologically it only takes five days to create a pattern of behavior.  A five-day frosh-week party atmosphere can set a pattern of behavior for the remainder of the school year.
  • Decrease the density of alcohol sales.  If bars are more than one mile from campus it has a significant impact.
  • Use standard-sized glasses, no extra-large glasses or pitchers
  • Do not announce last call
  • Ensure licenced premises sell food
  • Increase prices
  • Do not offer happy hours, student specials, ladies’ nights, etc.
  • Revamp university curriculums and schedules to keep students busy


Visioning and Planning a Near-Campus Neighbourhood

Tanja Curic, policy planner, City of Waterloo, and Yin Xiao, masters planning student, University of Waterloo

Ms. Curic described the process of developing a Land Use and Community Plan for the Northdale Neighbourhood in Waterloo.  The City of Waterloo, through a council initiative, hired an external planning group to create a 20-year vision and land-use plan for this near-campus neighbourhood.  The year-long study involved the university, the community, and city staff.  Ms. Curic said that it was important to hold the public meetings locally and to publicize them in student newspapers and social media.  The public meetings typically had over 200 participants and resulted in urban-design guidelines and a vision for amenities and services for the area.  This is the type of initiative that the AWWCA and Councillor Brian McHattie have long supported.  The City of Hamilton planning department to date has not embraced the concept of a community plan for any area except the downtown core in Hamilton.   In a separate presentation Yin Xiao shared some of her research on land use and housing.  She reviewed the results of a survey of city planners from cities across Ontario, which showed, of course, that most municipalities do not have a planning strategy for near-campus communities, that they need planning policies and plans, and that there needs to be a shared vision that fully involves students, faculty, and residents.

In addition, during an informal session attendees shared some of their best practices most of which we have incorporated in Ainslie Wood and Westdale.


These few days were very interesting.  I was impressed with what the City of Windsor has been able to accomplish.  The symposium very clearly highlighted the need for city leaders to have a vision for the city’s future and how important a strong mayor with a strong vision is to the successful revitalization of a city.  It also showed how much can be accomplished to benefit the city and the post-secondary institutions when there is strong leadership with all these stakeholders and the will to move forward.  My opinion is that, with McMaster’s president, Dr. Patrick Deane, we have a willing partner to start the process.   Our own councillor is engaged; however, I believe we need a mayor and full council that have a clear vision for Hamilton’s future and the will to move that vision forward utilizing all that our post-secondary institutions could bring to the table.  It is also important that city council see the problems of the near-campus community, downtown development, and campus development as part of a symbiotic relationship that can create solutions to benefit all.

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