Colgate University and the Hamilton community have been inextricably linked for 200 years.
In Hamilton, where a rural community is home to a nationally ranked liberal arts university, how town and gown respond to shared opportunities has an effect on the experience of everyone who lives here or passes through. To their credit and benefit, campus and community have found ways to cooperate and communicate. And today, it’s “as good as it’s ever been,” says one lifelong resident, Town of Hamilton Supervisor Eve Ann Shwartz.
Sometimes Shwartz and Colgate President Brian W. Casey discuss town/gown matters at the open community swim on Sundays at the University’s Lineberry Natatorium. Other times, town business puts Shwartz in contact with the University’s Associate Vice President for Community Affairs Joanne Borfitz. For broader issues of community concern, Shwartz, Casey, and Village of Hamilton Mayor RuthAnn Loveless M’72 are, by dint of their positions, the active “principal partners” of a nonprofit corporation that formed 20 years ago to promote economic development and quality of life.
A byproduct of those interactions as they have become more frequent and routine: “I feel I can say what’s on my mind and there is someone to listen,” Shwartz says.
Among the many opportune moments in the shared history of Hamilton and Colgate, the first occurred when Baptist minister Daniel Hascall and his friend Nathaniel Kendrick convinced other local clergy and laymen to start a seminary. The people of Hamilton promised $6,000 for a building and guarantees to have the institution located in their newly incorporated village. Two hundred years later, Colgate is celebrating its Bicentennial.
First Baptist Church in Hamilton proclaims itself “Mother Church of Colgate” and notes on its website that founder/parishioners Samuel and Betsey Payne in 1826 gave the 123-acre farm that would become the University campus. Momentous.
Villagers rallied to the University’s aid in 1850 when, confronted by an effort to move the institution to Rochester, they pledged to raise an endowment of $60,000 to help ensure that Madison University would remain in Hamilton.
Colgate’s scale in relation to the size of its hometown has resulted in the village establishing services that are beyond the capacity of many other small towns. As Loveless, a 50-year resident, says, “We are more like a small city than a village.”
Hamilton’s municipal utilities commission provides electricity, water, sewer systems, and, more recently, natural gas at economical rates that benefit residents and the University alike.
Also, having a University in town helped justify the creation of Community Memorial Hospital, which has served citizens since 1951. Colgate gave the land on which the hospital was built and has been the lead donor to every major hospital fundraising campaign.
Air traffic related to University people and events helps make it feasible for the village to operate an airport (and airpark) a mile from downtown, the only commercial airport in the county.
In countless other cases — including the fire department, ambulance service, and nursery school — the community provides essential services. The University — recognizing both its dependence on those services and the additional expense that dependence represents — shares in the costs. Similarly, for many years, the University, though tax exempt, has voluntarily made direct contributions to the operating budgets of the village, town, and Hamilton Central School totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
At the turn of the 21st century, shifting economic realities presented a challenge that town and gown confronted head on. As in many other small towns, changing consumer patterns had altered Hamilton’s business economy. Empty storefronts and deferred maintenance marred what had long been a vibrant business district. The marketplace changed as well for the small farms and home-based businesses that were key elements in the town’s economy. The community and Colgate together responded to those conditions in ways that have profoundly affected town and gown throughout the past two decades.
Four programs that emerged as part of that response help define the relationship between the community and the University today:
- Partnership for Community Development (PCD) is a nonprofit economic development agency with equal representation from the village, town, and University.
- Hamilton Initiative is a for-profit limited liability company formed by Colgate to buy, restore, and manage distressed buildings downtown.
- Upstate Institute engages regional community members with students, faculty, and staff in research and academically grounded projects to advance upstate New York.
- The Max A. Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE) supports hundreds of students who volunteer their services locally and around the globe.
“Things were not good twenty years ago,” Shwartz recalls. As a first-term member of the town council in the late 1990s, she organized a comprehensive study of local issues affecting agriculture, small business, and housing. Colgate sociologist Adam Weinberg (now president of Denison University) and his students supported the study with their research.
Hamilton’s mayor at that time, businesswoman Stella Brink, was facing similar conditions in the village, where major buildings were underused and in decline, and the village green had been worn ragged by years of heavy use.
In 1998, Colgate President Neil Grabois invited representatives from the village, town, and University to explore ways they might collaborate to address those conditions. Grabois offered seed funding to hire a planner, Kate Lucey, and she staffed a collection of volunteers who devised PCD with a focus on community-based planning to “foster economic opportunity and community vitality.”
PCD’s broadly representative board elected Shwartz as its first president and Loveless — who was Colgate’s alumni director at the time — as vice president. Both signed the incorporation papers. Kept in the loop by Loveless, Colgate’s Alumni Board, collectively and individually, was among the most generous early financial supporters.
Almost immediately, PCD began coordinating community input and collecting contributions to finance a renewed village green. A “facade-improvement program” offered the owners of downtown buildings the financing and architectural guidance to restore their storefronts. PCD organized workshops for small businesses and farmers, tapped foundations and government agencies for funds to support local entrepreneurs, and scheduled events to attract more business to town. Weinberg’s students surveyed home-based businesses and identified a burgeoning, hidden aspect of Hamilton’s economy.
Today, 20 years later, PCD is thriving: “Achieving what we envisioned when we started,” says Loveless, who is now retired from Colgate and was elected mayor in 2017. The village, town, and Colgate each allocate funds annually for PCD’s operations. The return on that investment to date has been more than $6 million in outside support of economic development and community projects.
Included in that total is more than $2.5 million raised since PCD hired Jennifer Marotto-Lutter as its executive director in fall 2015. During Marotto-Lutter’s tenure, PCD has won grants totaling $540,000 that enabled four businesses to launch or expand, including Good Nature Farm Brewery, HeartStone Artisan Bakery, FoJo Beans, and Kriemhild Dairy.
Those businesses have brought at least 28 new jobs into the community. Another $200,000 in microenterprise grants supports six more start-ups, and an additional $100,000 will be awarded to businesses this year.
PCD and Colgate’s Thought Into Action (TIA) program have established a relationship that gives local residents access to alumni mentors and other resources that also support the University’s aspiring student entrepreneurs, including co-working space in TIA’s facility downtown. A five-year, $625,000 grant awarded jointly to TIA and PCD this year will expand services and allow for the hiring of a full-time staff person at the business incubator to serve both students and community members.
PCD also coordinated and funded a study of business prospects for the airpark. It worked with other local agencies and governments to develop public recreational resources. And, with funding from Colgate, it managed a study of housing options in the village and town — a perennial issue with ramifications across the local economy. Findings and reports on PCD’s work are presented and discussed at regular open forums that invite community input.
Central to all that happens around PCD is communication. “The structure brings us together,” says Colgate’s Casey. While month-to-month activities are overseen and coordinated with a working board of directors that includes community members and representatives of the village, town, and University, the “principal partners” — the mayor, town supervisor, and University president — join the board and staff for at least one or two meetings each year to review progress and agree on plans for future work.
The process creates continuity. Issues become part of a continuum. Participants develop common understanding. And when an actor changes, as inevitably happens, there’s a cast of players familiar with the story to help keep things on track. Former PCD board president Bruce Moseley calls it “the flywheel effect.”
In addition to fostering communications within the Hamilton/Colgate community, PCD has a growing profile as a resource for outside concerns that have an interest in establishing a footprint in town. “Developers contact our office for information,” Marotto-Lutter says. “They feel they have a point person.”
Colgate’s Borfitz says PCD has become “Hamilton’s economic development arm, doing all the things that are necessary to support a business community.”
Hamilton Initiative, LLC
Downtown Hamilton is a period piece made up of buildings constructed immediately after the great fire of 1895 leveled the business district. But by 1999 — PCD’s nascent façade improvement program notwithstanding — those historic properties were in sad repair.
Architectural details on many of the structures were eroding and rusting away from neglect, at risk of being lost forever. Storefronts that once held prosperous retail businesses were boarded up or repurposed to other uses. Second- and third-story residential spaces sat vacant or underused. For lack of steady income, some owners deferred maintenance.
Absentee ownership had already proven its downside, and local developers saw little promise to encourage their taking action. Townspeople were distraught. Those with memories of the Hamilton of old, including alumni, pined for the vibrant downtown of earlier times.
That spring, encouraged by reports of PCD’s early success, Colgate’s trustees under Chair Brian Little ’64 approved a resolution creating a fund that would be “fully expended for programs and activities … to promote economic vitality and to preserve and enhance the historic character and the quality of life in the surrounding area.” Trustee Tony Whaling ’59 took the lead in organizing an effort to research the prospects for buying and renovating a downtown building as a model project.
Whaling, a self-made businessman and philanthropist who grew up in northern New York, was driving the process when fate presented a twist. The Whaling-led effort had identified several prospects for possible acquisition. When an out-of-state developer surfaced, expressing interest in the same properties, matters became more urgent.
In breathtakingly short order, a new limited liability company, Hamilton Initiative, wholly owned by Colgate, had negotiated contracts on seven properties. Over the next three years, financed by gifts from alumni, parents, and friends, Hamilton Initiative gutted and restored the properties and recruited occupants.
Hamilton resident Roger Bauman, former owner of a small bookstore, turned contractor, turned grant administrator, was hired to manage the process on site. Using predominantly upstate architects and builders, he kept the projects on time and on budget, and then stayed on for many years after their completion to serve as the initiative’s president and property manager.
Hamilton Initiative converted abandoned apartments into offices in two of its buildings. Fifty members of Colgate’s professional staff moved in, increasing daily foot traffic downtown.
And when Hamilton Initiative purchased the Sperry Block (now home to the Colgate Bookstore), the deal enabled the previous owner to relocate to the airpark and modernize his business.
Everyone who was involved in or affected by the renovations acknowledges the anxieties that were associated with the process early on. But, from the outset, Hamilton Initiative held to the guiding principle of investing in the diversity and vitality of downtown as expressed in that trustee resolution of 1999. Put another way, Hamilton Initiative has consistently placed the needs of the community ahead of the need to make money. “We are not the typical landlord,” Borfitz says.
All of Hamilton Initiative’s properties remain on the local tax rolls. And while businesses occasionally change, Hamilton Initiative’s storefronts are never empty for long.
Colgate, Hamilton, and PCD all work closely with the Hamilton Business Alliance (HBA). Borfitz and Loveless are regulars at HBA’s monthly meetings, and Marotto-Lutter serves on the HBA board.
Hamilton Initiative’s Properties
- Sperry Block Gutted and renovated 2001–02. Home of the Colgate Bookstore and its well-used community meeting room. The clock tower is a village icon.
- Palace Theater Gutted and renovated in 2001–02. Leased to the community nonprofit Arts at the Palace, which organizes a year-round program of fine and performing arts.
- Hamilton Theater Built in 1895 as The Sheldon Opera House. Fully renovated this summer. Three movie screens; adjoining restaurant and shop on the first floor; second floor apartments; offices on the third.
- Colgate Inn Hamilton landmark kept open through Colgate’s purchase in the 1970s. It was completely renovated in 2011, and current updates include many upgrades to the first floor as well as a new tapas bar, The Library, coming to the former rathskeller.
- Nichols & Beal New home of FoJo Beans. Offices on the second and third floors.
- 2 Broad Street SWANK retail on the corner of Broad and Lebanon; one small shop on the basement level; five apartments above.
- Maxwell Hotel Maxwell’s Chocolates and the Mid-York Weekly on the first floor; offices on the second and third floors.
- 18-20 Utica Street Thought Into Action occupies the first floor; offices on the second floor.
- 22 Utica Street 8 Fresh restaurant at street level; two apartments above.
- 24-26 Utica Street Main Moon Restaurant and Hamilton Village Real Estate; two apartments above.
- Roth Building Yoga and Pilates studio on main floor; two professional offices on second floor.
Upstate Institute and COVE
Town and gown people have always worked together to help one another and address needs in their community. In 2001 and 2003, the University created a center and an institute to make the most of those shared interpersonal opportunities.
Established in 2003, Upstate Institute marshals the University’s research and academic resources to advance knowledge and understanding in ways that serve the regional community. Faculty and students, supported by Upstate, have engaged with local agencies and individuals to work on subjects as diverse as acid rain, homelessness, local food sourcing, and tick-borne diseases.
One example among many: Professor Chris Henke, a sociologist and environmental scientist, leads a group of community members, representing both the town and the University, who have been working together for two years on a local climate action plan. “It’s an example of the kind of win-win where we can support the community through research, but also get better answers by engaging with the community on methods and questions,” Henke says.
Environmental studies professor Andy Pattison adds: “It’s not just a bunch of pointy-headed professors talking about climate change and why polar bears matter. It’s a place for genuine dialogue between academics who are residents of the community and residents of the community who aren’t necessarily affiliated with Colgate in any official way. Relevant questions are: How could you live in this tiny village and not have your life be touched by Colgate? And, how can our community respond to the challenges posed by climate change in an authentic and inclusive way?” (See story below.)
A generous donor-funded endowment enables Upstate to support the development of courses relevant to the region, award faculty research grants, and recognize and attract outstanding scholars with the Gretchen Hoadley Burke ’81 Endowed Chair for Regional Studies. When he held the Burke Chair, Pattison established connections that led to his students conducting a detailed study of local housing issues. The students presented their findings on homelessness and insecure housing to the Madison County Board of Supervisors.
2019 Upstate Institute Summer Field School projects include:
- Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees
- National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum
- Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation
Through its Summer Field School, Upstate also provides stipends for student researchers who work with community organizations in central New York and the Adirondacks. PCD’s Marotto-Lutter says, “We give them real work.”
The thoughtful engagement of campus and community enables each to benefit from its interaction with the other.
“There’s so much wisdom in these valleys,” says international geographer and professor Ellen Percy Kraly, a former faculty director of Upstate. “Lessons I’ve learned on the ground here with Upstate inform all my work overseas.”
Upstate also provides stipends to faculty who teach in the Lifelong Learning Program, a popular, community-organized series offering 25 to 30 short courses each year.
Launched in 2001, COVE was inspired by a paper written by three undergraduates who saw a potential for students to learn more from their volunteer service while having greater impact for those they serve. Organized within the student affairs division, COVE provides guidance and logistical support for students who volunteer each year on as many as 40 teams. They work across the regional community and beyond to address disparate needs — from education, to public health, to community advocacy, to environmental stewardship.
Endowed with a lead gift from Jonah Shacknai ’78 in memory of his son Max, COVE annually supports the activities of 600 to 800 students who provide tens of thousands of hours of service ranging from tutoring local schoolchildren to volunteering with the fire department.
Jeremy Wattles ’05 brought his 10 years of experience in service learning and community engagement to Colgate when he joined COVE in January as director.
COVE’s office in Lathrop Hall is adjacent to the Upstate Institute office, and Wattles meets regularly with Upstate’s executive director, Julie Dudrick, to discuss how their organizations can coordinate and work most effectively with the community.
Outward looking. Community focused. In it together.
Preparing for Effects of Climate Change
Representatives of the Village and Town of Hamilton, Colgate, and Madison County have been working together since 2016 to make Hamilton a Climate Smart Community.
“Climate Smart Communities is a New York State program that encourages cities, towns, and villages to prepare responsibly for our changing climate,” says Professor Ian Helfant, director of the Environmental Studies Program at Colgate. “To earn this certification, Hamilton must complete a number of steps, each step carrying points. Benefits include access to grants, free technical assistance, and leadership recognition.”
The Hamilton Climate Preparedness Working Group (HCPWG) is leading this process. It is chaired by Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Christopher Henke, who is working with Colgate’s director of sustainability, John Pumilio. “John and I wanted to start a conversation about the need to proactively get our communities ready for climate change and the impacts we can see coming down the line,” Henke says.
Students in the environmental studies junior seminar (ENST 390) have been working with local community members and the HCPWG. The mission of the HCPWG involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions, working with local communities to track and cut emissions, and identifying people and resources vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
“Ultimately, the goal is to assess Hamilton’s strengths and vulnerabilities and prepare the town and village to be as resilient as possible in the face of climate change,” Helfant says. “It’s important that we also prepare to support local farmers as they adapt to these changes.”
Hamilton Mayor RuthAnn Loveless M’72 says the village’s Climate Smart resolution recognizes “that climate change may endanger our infrastructure, economy, and livelihoods; harm our farms, orchards, and ecological communities, including native fish and wildlife populations; spread invasive species and exotic diseases; reduce drinking water supplies and recreational opportunities; and pose health and safety threats to our citizens.” The Town of Hamilton has adopted a similar approach and is working closely with the team from the village and Colgate to achieve certification. Madison County has already been certified, and county planners have been advising the process in Hamilton.
Concrete steps being taken include decreasing energy use, increasing use of renewable energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through use of climate-smart land-use tools. The Climate Smart resolution stipulates that any initiatives cannot “adversely affect the Village’s energy supply contracts or the cost of supplying energy to Village residents and businesses.”
Members of the HCPWG team meet monthly. The group coordinated with the Partnership for Community Development in March to sponsor a community informational meeting on its work. Later that month, Pumilio organized a Saturday workshop on climate preparedness that attracted members of the HCPWG, townspeople from Hamilton and surrounding communities, and students, faculty, and staff from the University.
— Kate Norton ’20