William & Mary strives to be an economic engine for the region

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by Andrew Petkofsky

The College of William & Mary, a celebrated small university that has produced famous graduates ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Jon Stewart, is sparing no expense to provide its hometown with a late-night diner.

After years of encouraging local entrepreneurs to open student-friendly businesses near the campus to augment an existing convenience store and a trio of restaurant-bar “delis,” school officials decided to do it themselves. Through its new nonprofit William & Mary Real Estate Foundation, the school recently purchased three parcels that make up an acre of property across the street from the campus.

The price — $2.2 million — was high enough to discourage any interest from private developers, says Nancy Buchanan, the real estate foundation’s executive director. But the prospect of bringing students their long-sought late-night hangout, and maybe even a dance club, made the purchase worthwhile, she says. W&M’s governing board of visitors financed the deal with money it had raised by selling other land.

“They deemed that this property was strategic enough and important enough to encourage students to come to the college,” Buchanan says. The school plans to put one or more three-story buildings on the land along Richmond Road and Prince George Street, possibly in partnership with a private developer. Student-oriented businesses would occupy the ground floor and student housing, the two upper

The project is intended to make Williamsburg more of the sort of college town that students and applicants tell school officials they would like to see. William & Mary’s move is emblematic of how the university increasingly serves as an economic development engine in its hometown, the surrounding region and other parts of Virginia.

Since the 1990s, the college often has moved beyond its primary focus on education and scholarship to play a role in the regional economy through urban planning, partnerships with local governments, real estate development, technical support for businesses, and research alliances that strengthen local companies and other schools.

“The future of the university in large measure depends on it being at the center of a vibrant economy that will help attract quality faculty and quality students,” says James R. Golden, W&M’s vice president for strategic initiatives. A former brigadier general in the Army and executive with Tenneco, Golden came to the school in 1999.

Investment in New Town
Many universities, especially those with public support, have ventured into regional economic development during the past decade or so. Virginia’s General Assembly even required such efforts from public universities seeking to increase their managerial autonomy under a restructuring law passed in 2005.

By then William & Mary had become a leader in working with local governments to steer regional development in a way that would benefit the school. Timothy J. Sullivan, the president of W&M from 1992 to 2005, led the formation of a regional planning partnership called the Crossroads Group. Regional growth was clearly coming to Williamsburg in a corridor that had been created by the new Route 199 bypass. Sullivan said the corridor provided an opportunity to expand the regional economy beyond the tourism industry that centered on Colonial Williamsburg, other historical sites and the Busch Gardens theme park.

In 2000, the school invested $6 million from its endowment fund — now called the William & Mary Foundation — to purchase a half-share in 300 acres near campus in James City County being developed as the New Town mixed-use district.

The development has since become a thriving community that offers shops, banks, a movie theater, restaurants and a host of professional service providers, such as doctors, lawyers, architects and nonprofit agencies.

Some of William & Mary’s nonacademic offices became tenants in two New Town buildings this spring. College officials once had hoped the buildings might house high-technology companies started locally or lured from established tech centers like Northern Virginia.

That dream changed as the high-tech boom cooled and the region’s industrial economy slowed. Nonetheless, college and local government officials say the New Town plan has been flexible enough to benefit the local economy in unforeseen ways as conditions changed.

“The surprise in New Town for me has been the demand for class-A office space,” Golden says. Some companies that formerly rented space elsewhere formed partnerships to own their buildings in New Town. Other companies took the opportunity to expand, Golden says. “They’re there and they’re growing.”

Agency, school alliances
Meanwhile, William and Mary’s development office moved into the Discovery I building, now owned by a private company. The school’s economic development office, technology and business center and the real estate foundation moved into the other Discovery building. Joining William & Mary in Discovery II are James City County’s economic development office and some work-force training classrooms, focused on technical skills, run by Thomas Nelson Community College.

The co-location of college and government offices is a regional effort to provide “one-stop shopping” to connect business and research development, says Keith Taylor, James City County’s director of economic development.

The partnership with James City is only a small part of W&M’s efforts to foster regional research efforts. Another alliance, the Hampton Roads Research Partnership, links W&M with Hampton, Old Dominion and Christopher Newport universities and the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton and Jefferson Lab in Newport News. That partnership allows the schools and centers to offer their combined resources to attract research grants.

“We’ve all realized that none of the universities is really at the level of a major research university,” says W&M’s Golden. “But if you pool all of that together … you’ve got a cluster of research capability that matches the leading schools in the state.”

One indication of the alliance’s success is that W&M’s sponsored research spending nearly doubled from $23 million in 2000 to $45 million last year.

Working with local tech firm
The university also makes a special effort to nurture the local technical sector through a variety of programs that provide expertise and training.At least one of those programs has been valuable to Maciek Sasinowski, the CEO of a bioinformatics firm called Incogen. Sasinowski was a pioneer of the once-hoped-for high-tech boom when he moved his company to the Williamsburg area in 2002. He had earned a doctorate at W&M and hoped that research collaboration with his alma mater would spur an influx of similar firms.

Six years later, Incogen — which develops computer software for sorting and analyzing data in complicated biological research such as genomics —  is still a lonely outpost. But the company continues to be involved in research partnerships with the college, and Sasinowski participates in a CEO forum organized by W&M officials.

After soliciting the advice of other chief executives, Sasinowski’s company made strategic changes that helped it thrive. Incogen had hoped to expand by reducing its bioinformatics services and focusing on making products for other companies. But the demand for services continued and the demand for products was slow to develop. The CEO group advised Incogen to shift its focus back to service. “We did make that change … and things have worked out well for us,” Sasinowski says. “It was almost like having a board of 12 CEOs. That really made a big difference.”

Campus building boom
Although William & Mary is a relatively small university with 5,500 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students, its presence makes a huge impact on the local economy. A 2005 study estimated its annual economic impact in Hampton Roads at half a billion dollars and 6,320 jobs.

The school values its intimate scale and has taken pains to keep the student body from growing too rapidly. Yet, it has been putting up new buildings and renovating old ones at a frantic pace in recent years. The total construction costs will amount to a third of a billion dollars, says Anna Martin, the school’s vice president for administration.

Among the projects are new dorms that opened in 2006, a law library expansion completed in May 2007 and the construction of new science facilities and renovation of old ones now under way. Under construction on one end of campus is the $75 million Mason School of Business. Just beyond the northwestern edge of campus, the school soon will begin building a $48 million school of education on the site of what used to be Sentara Williamsburg Community Hospital.

Meanwhile, W&M’s real estate foundation and other school officials have been developing plans to create that student-oriented, wee-hours gathering place on property across the street from campus.

Colonial Williamsburg at one time had expressed interest in bringing student-oriented businesses to its campus-side shopping district in Merchants Square, but it opted instead to open upscale shops catering to tourists and wealthy residents. “The main thing is that when the bars close at 2 a.m., the students don’t have anyplace else to go,” says Buchanan, the real estate foundation director. “Because the town doesn’t provide for the students, the college feels that it has to.” 

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