Have you heard of Detroit’s Big 3? No, the other three: Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and Detroit Medical Center. If Detroit is to truly come back, these institutions, located in a two-square-mile area in the heart of the city’s urban core, will drive the resurgence.
Anchor institutions, such as those making up Detroit’s “other” Big 3, hold incredible potential to transform the cities and neighborhoods in which they reside — but they will not do so if left to their own devices. Tremendous strategy, creativity, perseverance and collaboration are required for success.
As the United States has shifted from a production economy to a knowledge-based and service-based economy over the last 50 years, universities and hospitals have become increasingly important assets to American cities. These institutions are often referred to as “anchors” because of their permanence and physical and social ties to surrounding communities. Beyond fulfilling their respective missions to educate, heal, cultivate the arts or provide other services, these institutions should also be considered economic engines for their cities. By employing large work forces, purchasing vast quantities of goods and services, attracting investment through capital projects and research activities, and providing constituents access to food, retail, and other amenities, anchors have the capacity to shape their surroundings and enhance quality of life for residents and institutional associates alike.
In some instances, a mutually beneficial dynamic organically evolves between an institution and its surrounding neighborhood, creating economically sustainable commercial corridors, vibrant streets and dense, diverse neighborhoods. The U.S. has plenty of great college towns to showcase this — such as Ann Arbor, Michigan or Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In many other cases, especially in underserved urban areas, institutional and civic leadership must champion proactive projects, programs and policies to achieve such a balance — the process of which is known as an “anchor strategy.” Anchor strategies broadly aim to leverage an institution’s demand and assets to maximize its impact in the community. This can be done through hiring local workers, purchasing from local vendors, providing residents incentives to live in the community, bringing business to local retail and commercial corridors, and overall aiding in the creation of a safe and thriving community.
Yet not all anchor strategies are created equal. There are countless examples of institutions that, despite having the best intentions, have found working with and for the benefit of their communities too challenging to pursue. Anchors are inherently bureaucratic institutions with many layers of decision-making and leadership and, accordingly, an inability to make quick, nimble moves. Further complicating matters, the best interests of an institution are not always aligned with the needs of the communities that surround them. But neighborhoods like West Philadelphia and Midtown Detroit prove that anchor strategies hold transformative potential when designed and executed properly — that is to say, when they are comprehensive, place-based and institutionally embedded.
Comprehensive anchor strategies leverage the full capacity of an anchor institution to make a difference in their communities. When the University of Pennsylvania embarked on one of the first and most widely regarded anchor strategies in the mid-1990s, it didn’t limit its approach. Instead, Penn developed a multi-focused strategy that included investing in safety and security programs, activating commercial corridors, building a neighborhood public school, and purchasing more goods and services from local businesses.
When an anchor strategy is place-based, it focuses on a targeted geography — one where an institution’s investment and development can have the strongest impact. In Midtown Detroit, for example, the three anchors collectively invested in Midtown Detroit, a community development organization that stewards community and economic development in Midtown’s three square miles. It is through this organization that investment for projects and programs aimed at creating a dense, walkable, neighborhood — such as the successful Live Midtown housing incentive program — are directed. The anchors’ collective investment has enabled Midtown Detroit to leverage millions of dollars in philanthropic and private investment — benefitting the neighborhood overall.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, institutionally embedded anchor strategies ensure that the goals of the anchor strategy are communicated and internalized across every institutional function by strong, results-oriented leadership. It is only when the academic programs, administrative units, facilities management personnel and governing boards are all working toward these collective goals that an anchor strategy will take root and bolster the surrounding community.
When done well, an anchor strategy can have significant impact on a local and regional economy. A comprehensive, place-based and institutionally embedded anchor strategy can provide benefits to all of the parties involved, strengthening the community, the greater region and the anchor itself.
On Nov. 19th, Next City will be hosting a discussion in Philadelphia about strategies for leveraging universities to create jobs and benefits for cities. (The event’s free; register here.)
Alex Feldman is a vice president at U3 Advisors, a nationally recognized consulting practice that provides real estate and economic development solutions to the institutions that anchor our communities. For the last five years with U3, he has helped envision and implement the Midtown Anchor Strategy, an economic development strategy that has contributed to the revitalization of Midtown Detroit.