It doesn’t register. Tallahassee was carved out of North Florida woods almost 200 years ago because leaders of the state wanted a convenient capital city. It’s why Tallahassee is here.
Now imagine Tallahassee without Florida State University. Or Florida A&M. Or Tallahassee Community College.
“Tallahassee without its major universities and community college would be like a three-legged stool with only one and a half legs,” said Mike Pate, former publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat. “It would fall over.”
After retiring from the newspaper business in 2005, Pate was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation program director. In that capacity, he helped provide funding and leadership for a variety of initiatives including the Knight Creative Communities Institute (KCCI), Sustainable Tallahassee, the Tallahassee Film Festival, and Get Gaines Going.
Now a private consultant, Pate has spent more than a year laying the foundation for a new initiative that he and other local leaders believe can be a catalyst for turning a terrific community into an even better place to live and work.
They’ve named it Town and Gown Tallahassee – TAG – and Pate, the project director, already has funding commitments for more than $150,000. The most recent is a one-year grant of $23,000 from the Knight Foundation Donor Advised Fund.
Other major donors include FSU, FAMU, TCC, the City of Tallahassee, and Leon County. Additional partners include the TCC Foundation, Leon County Schools, the Chamber of Commerce, The Village Square, and KCCI.
Many Tallahasseeans, including university presidents and elected leaders, acknowledge that town and gown could and should be more collaborative.
“I am excited by the opportunity that the town and gown relations project presents to forge a stronger bond with our neighbors in the local community,” said Florida State University President Eric J. Barron.
“The city of Tallahassee and FSU face many of the same challenges, but we also share many of the same opportunities. This initiative will serve as an important reminder that our futures are inextricably linked, and that we work best when we work together.”
FAMU President James Ammons added: “We are looking forward to partnering with local businesses, governmental entities and neighboring institutions through this town and gown initiative.
“I believe that from the well-established relationships that we have built over the years, we can collaborate on economic initiatives and help provide a more enriching environment for all of our citizens. I’m pleased that FAMU is able to help support the effort.”
When town and gown don’t cooperate effectively, Pate said, it means a bridge is only half as strong as it needs to be. Occasionally it means a bridge is burned.
Pate likens it to a ballet dancer wearing hiking boots.
“What I’ve seen happen too often is an opportunity for a graceful turn or dramatic leap instead became an awkward stumble,” he said. “A key objective of TAG Tallahassee is development of a single, effective process to bring town and gown together to resolve issues, and build more trust.”
The goal, Pate added, is for both town and gown to get beyond acknowledging that they have a mutual interest in collaborating, and to do it routinely.
“The broader community, which we’re all part of, will be a better place,” he said, “in part because the result will be more jobs.”
While Pate has been securing financial commitments, representatives from the partners have met several times this year to plan the project. In addition, Oppenheim Research of Tallahassee for the past two months surveyed 700 local residents and 70 community leaders to develop data on how town-gown relations are perceived.
In early 2011, information from the surveys will be presented at several town hall forums, moderated by The Village Square. Representatives from other cities where universities are located will share “best practices” in town-gown relations that enhanced their communities.
The objective, Pate said, is for Tallahassee “to make collaboration routine and produce transformational change in our town-gown relations.”
“We will actively engage the community in discussions about town and gown relations and how improving them can create dramatic change,” he said. The final phase of what is expected to be a two-year process will be the development of teams with broad citizen representation that identify and complete projects whose goal is a new way of work for both town and gown in Tallahassee.
“This will allow us to pursue partnerships that diversify our economy beyond government and higher education,” Pate said, “while we build the sense of place that will attract and retain the college graduates and young professionals who will help lead us into the future.”