After completing his second term as Howard County executive, but ending up on the losing side in the 2014 Maryland gubernatorial race, Ken Ulman had reached a bit of a crossroads.
While his background qualified him for numerous opportunities, some observers may have been a bit surprised when he opted to return to his alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), and get busy reinvigorating not only the campus, but its surrounds. While the campus has always had a largely pleasing aesthetic, the same can’t be said for the adjacent Route 1 Corridor, a stagnant area that mainly consists fast food franchises, sub shops, liquor stores and bars, with a variety of small retailers.
So the ongoing mission of Ulman, who contracts with the university via his Maple Lawn-based Margrave Strategies, has been to spearhead the economic development efforts to build up the campus, as well as Route 1 — which the UMD administration now calls Baltimore Boulevard — and the surrounding area to heighten the university experience, while attracting more top notch students and professionals to work in, and live in, College Park.
The overall effort is part of UMD playing to the dictates of its new conference, the Big Ten; and the arrival of university President Wallace Loh, formerly of the University of Iowa (a long-time Big Ten member), who saw similar growth at that Midwestern post and hired Ulman.
The Big Switch
What may have been lost in the university’s move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten is that the switch wasn’t just about athletics.
“Joining the Big Ten meant that not only were athletics on the rise; but academics, especially given the focus of research at the university; and culture of innovation and entrepreneurship are on the rise, too,” Ulman said. “The campus and the area around it didn’t change for a long time, but it’s not just about the campus anymore. When Dr. Loh came here, he made economic development of the entire area a priority.”
That’s especially important given the university’s location in College Park, which lies inside the Capital Beltway; features a station on the Metro’s Green Line that inspired office development by Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust; and the possible addition of the Purple Line light rail project, which would include five stops throughout the campus and its surrounds (though that part of the equation is unsettled at present).
So now, it’s all about The Big Picture. “We won’t reach our potential unless we’re also a great university community,” Ulman said, “meaning a place where faculty and staff want to live, with plenty of private sector jobs, retail, hotels and recreational amenities. We want it to be an ideal university community.”
Projects that are rising on and around the campus to make just that happen are vast and varied. On campus, they include the 186,000-square-foot Edward St. John Learning & Teaching Center, which will house the Academy of Innovation & Entrepreneurship — part of which, the Center for Health and Human Performance, will be housed in the new Cole Field House project — and the Learning Transformation Center; and the A. James Clark Hall, the 184,000-square-foot future home of the Fischell Center for Bioengineering. Both are slated to open in 2017.
Off campus, mixed-use projects include Terrapin Row, which is rising where the Knox Box residential area once stood and will contain 418 apartments, with retail and green space, plus a pedestrian mall and an amphitheater; and the 1,000-residence Riverdale Park Station, another mixed-use project that is rising a mile south of the campus. It will include a Whole Foods supermarket and a Hyatt House hotel.
Speaking of the local hotel market, another notable project in the mix is rising almost directly across from the main campus entrance at the corner of Baltimore Avenue at Campus Drive (the former Paint Branch Parkway): the $180 million Hotel at the University of Maryland, which is being built by Southern Management Corp. Director of Sales and Marketing Marian Hrab (also a Maryland alum). She explained why the new, 297-room amenity, which could open by late spring/early summer, is a key addition to the local landscape.
“Once Dr. Loh came on board, there was greater concern about what type of projects would be built around the campus, so there has been greater interaction with private business. The idea was to change the whole vibe,” said Hrab. “Building the hotel was a big coup, because it will provide another great springboard for more development.”
This isn’t just any hotel. The 297 guest rooms include 29 suites and more than 43,000 square feet of conference space, and will be highlighted by a rooftop event venue, The Red Door Spa by Elizabeth Arden, a large lobby bar and four restaurants, including local staple Mike Franklin’s newest restaurant, the Old Maryland Grill; and Kapnos Taverna by Mike Isabella (of Top Chef fame).
It’s quite a change in the types of accommodations that have been available on Route 1 over the years, and there’s a reason for that. “Not only is the university working to make the area around the campus more active, appealing and pedestrian-friendly,” said Hrab, “but the rise in academic standards, along with the move to the Big Ten, have meant a ramp-up not only in the athletic department, but in the demand for better accommodations on and around the campus, too.”
That integrated effort between the university and the community is indicative of what has already happened at some major campuses in the country that, like UMD, are on board with the trend.
Dennis Donovan, a principal with Wadley Donovan Gutshaw Consulting, a site consulting firm in Bridgewater, N.J., said that UMD is aboard the bandwagon and is “indeed playing a major role in economic development,” as “universities are adding another leg to their missions that encompass research parks, tech transfer programs, collaborative research and funding business recruitment, among other efforts.
Donovan even deemed the UMD among “universities in the forefront” of the movement, as are other universities like Georgia Tech, Pitt, Louisiana Tech, Michigan, Nebraska, Clemson, the University of Buffalo and Louisiana State. “UMD is definitely reflective of a national trend wherein universities are adopting proactive strategies to support job growth in their states and communities.”
The notion that the trend has traction was seconded by Tim Hindes, executive director of the University Economic Development Association (UEDA), in Pittsburgh. Now in its 40th year and with a roster of 160 members, Hindes noted that membership “has plateaued in recent years, but we’re ramping up again as a result of greater engagement.
“Around the country, given our focus, we’re seeing growing membership, due to our providing some leadership in the sector in four- and two-year schools, and allies of those institutions, like cities and towns in which they’re located. If it’s just us in the room,” he said, “we’re not getting our message out.”
In August 2015, UEDA (of which UMD is not a member), with APLU.org, published Higher Education Engagement in Economic Development: Foundations for Strategy and Practice, which Hindes said represented a great step forward for the movement.
“This document is key, because there had never been a true definition in what economic development at a college is,” he said. “It did three things: created a definition, offered best practices and, lastly, included a taxology program, so universities can start exciting initiatives and see how what their efforts stack up when compared to a national model, based on innovation [like new online programs and business development], talent and place [developing their communities].
“Educational institutions are meant to have a regional focus,” said Hindes, “and the businesses in those areas often don’t have [a large number] of employees. Therefore they need other local businesses and educational institutions to supplement their needs.”
That statement is understood by the local government in College Park, as well. Ryan Chelton, economic development coordinator for the city, said the office shares the long-term vision and is working with the university and the surrounding neighborhoods to make things happen.
“The idea of keeping graduates of UMD in and around the area is a good thing, because for the most part they’ve left for other areas,” said Chelton. “Now, a concerted effort is being made to keep them here and contributing to College Park, Prince George’s County and the area.”
That effort, of course, requires communication.
“We’ve been in touch with Ken Ulman’s office several times to ensure that we’re all on the same page when addressing the same issues,” Chelton said — noting such projects as the new 150-room Cambria hotel that is rising behind the McDonald’s, and the 15,000 square feet atop Southern Management’s building next to the EconoLodge, both on Baltimore Boulevard — “such as helping the UMD attract businesses that will want to employ graduates of the college who possess the human capital” needed in the job market.
So, from here on, know that the College Park of your parent’s day, your day and maybe even your children’s day is heading straight to the memory books.
“There has been a movement nationally to create such ventures at college campuses, but people were missing the real estate side,” Ulman said. “Today, we know that we need all of the elements to build the ecosystem.”