Communities & Colleges: Creating the Connection

As a recent graduate from the University of South Dakota, I frequently reminisce about living in a college town. Restaurants have student discounts, bars have drink specials every day of the week, and nearly everything (in my experience) can be accessed by walking or biking.

Vermillion, South Dakota, and its local businesses successfully caters to students, which is key because the university is crucial to the town’s economy. The educational service sector employs more people than any other local industry. And with more than 10,000 students enrolled, the university doubles the town’s population during the school year.

When communities and their local schools work together, the community benefits. Students act as creative drivers that contribute to civic life and community identity. They fuel street life, provide a powerful market for local businesses, and contribute to the local pool of educated labor.

However, some communities in the American West could do more to take advantage of their local colleges and universities. Community Builders recognizes this and has worked with local leaders to develop strategies and deepen their relationship with higher education institutions to further strengthen the community. Some of these strategies are outlined in a few of our technical assistance projects, below.

Terry First

Pocatello, Idaho

Pocatello, Idaho was looking to connect two socioeconomic engines in its town—Old Town Pocatello and Idaho State University. Working directly with citizens, business owners, and community partners, the town developed a new vision for the Terry First corridor—a passage that physically connects Old Town with ISU. The project utilized connectivity and placemaking to create a more vibrant, safe space that linked two essential parts of town.


  • Branding Paint an Idaho State University logo on the street at 5th and Terry to help brand the University’s iconic place within the community, while providing a visual cue to drivers that they are in a pedestrian-trafficked area. Continue the ISU/Pocatello branding effort along the corridor on existing public infrastructure, such as retaining walls, fire hydrants, curbs, and sidewalks.
  • Bike & Pedestrian Lane Create a colorful bike and pedestrian lane that provides a direct and obvious connection between ISU and Old Town, taking pedestrians through the Warehouse District—an area of the community that is a focal point for development. The path will both signal that pedestrians are more welcome in the area and that their safety is a priority.

Pocatello was able to enact temporary street painting. The Idaho State University logo was painted on the street, as well as the “limitless lane”—a purple bike and pedestrian lane. The temporary paint was to introduce these concepts to the community before enduring the financial cost of a permanent project. The projects were well-received by the community.


Strong at Heart
Taos, New Mexico

The Strong at Heart project was centered around creating a vision and strategy for Downtown Taos. The downtown street, Civic Plaza Drive, is home to a number of nonprofit, civic, and educational institutions that care deeply about enhancing the corridor. Representatives from several of these organizations, including the University of New Mexico, gathered during the Strong at Heart process to discuss ways to work together to make Civic Plaza Drive more vibrant, social, and welcoming. The community wanted to make a space for students and the wider community to come together, engage, and learn from each other.


  • Culture Showcase cultural values like art, creativity, and education through festivals, public art, performance, and otherevents. Programming, such as art market nights or regular hours for street vending and food carts could enhance street life while simultaneously providing opportunities to sell goods or start/expand small businesses. Activity like this creates vibrancy and street life that is authentic to the people and organizations already working there.
  • Streetscapes Experiment with low-cost and temporary streetscape improvements such as creative crosswalks, seating, parklets, art, banners, or string lighting.

Taos was able to capitalize on culture while experimenting with placemaking. During the project, students and teachers from the Taos Education & Career Center (an education center on Civic Plaza Drive) put their artistic skills to work creating experimental crosswalks, bike lanes, food cart stalls, and expanded sidewalks along Civic Plaza Drive.

The Gunnison Vibrancy Initiative
Gunnison, Colorado

The Gunnison Vibrancy Initiative was created to foster awareness of the importance of a healthy and attractive downtown. Throughout the process, the project brought the community together to create a vision for the future of Downtown Gunnison and an action plan for making it vibrant and economically prosperous.

Despite the location of Western State University in Gunnison, many residents felt that the city missed a “university town” feel. A large portion of the community understood the need to strengthen the relationship between the university and the downtown. The proximity of Western State to downtown presented an opportunity to retain students through vibrancy investments, such as the creation of downtown spaces for students and co-branding.


  • Student-friendly Build on existing student discount programs and create more of a draw (more things to do at varioustimes) through extended hours, more events and activities (including options for people under-21), and placemaking efforts that provide more “places” for students and others to hangout in the downtown.
  • Branding To strengthen the relationship between Western State University and the community, the City and Western State should partner on a coordinated co-branding strategy. Opportunities for co-branding include-hanging Western State banners along streets, wayfinding signage with City and Western State logos, incorporating Western State colors and/or logos into streetscape elements including bus stops, benches, bike racks, street lights, planters, or gateway elements.


Public Process Is Key to a Successful Plan

A town or city’s governing document is most effective when it receives input from various sectors of the community. When these entities include a local college or university, relationships are established, the plan is strengthened, and the whole community benefits.

  • Assistance
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  • Placemaking