Economy & Economic Development  July 28, 2011

City, UNC, residents work to create University District

GREELEY – Greeley native Linde Thompson and her husband, Ron, are the kind of people the proposed University District is all about.

Both have lived in Greeley most of their lives. Their home is not far from the University of Northern Colorado campus and they own residential and commercial properties in the district.

Most important, they care deeply about their city and especially the University District area, getting involved in numerous community improvement projects.

That’s why Linde is helping spearhead the creation of a University District in Greeley, to make sure the area surrounding the university is a strong and vibrant part of the city.

“Ron and I are hopeful this project will not only help our own businesses but also enhance this part of Greeley, which we think is the best part of Greeley,” she said.

Efforts to establish a University District, which would comprise six sub-neighborhoods around UNC, are gaining momentum, with five committees moving forward on issues of neighborhood livability, growth through education, creating destinations within the district, neighborhood design and creating a vibrant economy.

While the city of Greeley and UNC are taking leading roles in the effort, neighborhood involvement by residents and business owners has been strong, according to Becky Safarik, Greeley’s community development director.

“It’s really been pleasing,” she said. “I think we not only have people engaging but also saying this really makes sense to me.”

Diverse area

The University District is a diverse area, with some of the most beautiful residential neighborhoods in the city and others – containing mostly rental properties – that are slipping into disrepair.

Safarik said the area is important to the city and its future.

“We’re a college town and UNC is one of our top employers, along with North Colorado Medical Center, so (the district) has two of our top employers,” she said. “Through the college and the hospital, it’s an entry point for visitors. It’s also one of our oldest and most established neighborhoods, which are treasured.”

Safarik said the University District and the downtown are “two very important keystones for our (city) redevelopment plan. It’s really an area to take good care of.”

At a recent University District community meeting at Hillside Baptist church, about 50 people showed up on a Thursday evening to discuss progress and air concerns, including unkempt properties and businesses like tattoo parlors, that will be challenges to making the area more attractive and inviting to visitors and investors.

Bruce Biggi, the city’s economic development manager, said a “One Yard at a Time” program aims to help landlords spruce up their properties with city technical assistance.

“The intent, as owners of real estate, is everybody has a vested interest in how that property looks,” he said. “Taking one yard at a time will help create momentum.”

But the University District will not take the lead in trying to clean out objectionable businesses, said Brad Mueller, the city’s planning manager.

“It’s not the goal of this effort to push anybody out of the neighborhood,” he said.

Active role

UNC is taking an active role because its future depends to some degree on being surrounded by a prosperous and attractive residential and business community.

Chuck Leonhardt, UNC vice president of university relations, is chairing the district’s education committee, which seeks to find ways to more strongly engage students and community members.

“We feel if we can build a community, starting at the grassroots with education, many good things can happen,” Leonhardt said. “We want to create a university district that’s a magnet that people want to be part of.”

Getting more people to visit the campus, either as part of UNC events like Homecoming or taking classes for credit or pleasure, are ideas for community-university engagement, he said.

UNC President Kay Norton acknowledged the school’s role as “an anchor institution in Greeley” and said creating a university district is “an idea whose time has come.”

“For the last few decades, our relationship with our neighbors has been one of truly taking each other for granted,” she said.

But Norton said now is the time for the university and the neighboring community to reach out to each other. That means creating an attractive area for investment and development and where students and faculty might want to live, she said.

“I believe when we get this right collectively as a community we will be jump-starting the economy and social development of the community,” Norton said.

Many challenges

UNC graduate Tony Groeger owns a business and has lived in the University District for more than 30 years. Groeger said he’s hopeful for good things to come from the University District effort but sees many challenges.

Groeger notes Greeley’s high number of foreclosures in recent years is making it hard to get money to reinvest in some neighborhoods, along with the fact that many district houses are 70 to 100 years old.

“At the end of the day, you have to figure out how to get capital moving in the right direction,” he said. “The trick is how do you do it in such a tough financial market.”

Groeger notes the problems facing the University District are similar to those facing college areas across the nation. He said it will take money, time, leadership and commitment to create a thriving district in Greeley.

“It’s taken about 30 years to get this way and it will take at least a decade to turn it around,” he said.

But things are happening. The Villa, a former UNC student housing complex a few blocks east of campus that had badly deteriorated, has been leveled and there are plans to build a new multi-family housing project on the site.

Ideas are percolating out of the citizen committees, including holding regular neighborhood gatherings and festivals to create a stronger sense of community.

Long-term goals include the possibility of forming a housing development corporation to increase owner occupancy and better promotion of key neighborhood destinations through signage and a website.

Supporters of the project acknowledge it will take years to create a fully realized University District. Committee chair Linde Thompson said she’ll know when that happens “when people come into town who say I want to buy a house or start a business in the University District or go to an event there.”

UNC President Norton said the university is taking an even longer view.

“We don’t really view it so much as a project with a beginning, middle and an end but as convening a conversation that will be ongoing,” she said.

GREELEY – Greeley native Linde Thompson and her husband, Ron, are the kind of people the proposed University District is all about.

Both have lived in Greeley most of their lives. Their home is not far from the University of Northern Colorado campus and they own residential and commercial properties in the district.

Most important, they care deeply about their city and especially the University District area, getting involved in numerous community improvement projects.

That’s why Linde is helping spearhead the creation of a University District in Greeley, to make sure the area surrounding the university is a strong and…

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