Here’s something that you might not know: The number of college students in Greensboro is greater than the population of 45 counties in North Carolina. That’s a lot of college students right here in town, year after year.

Nearly 50,000 young people from around the world choose to live and study in Greensboro, bringing with them unbridled energy to advance human knowledge, develop new technologies, grow as future global leaders and create new forms of art. They make our future bright.

At the same time, these students form a core of vibrant participation in our community, contributing good spirit and civic involvement while shopping in our stores, eating in our restaurants, worshipping with us and helping our economy.

In a period when our local economy is “treading water,” in the words of UNCG researcher Andrew Brod, it may be time to acknowledge and indeed celebrate their presence and the virtues accompanying this distinction. Youthful enthusiasm? Check. Educated awareness? Check. Energetic participation? Check. Culturally aware? Check. Athletics and recreation programs? Check.

College towns are places people want to be because they offer those qualities. Think about it: Close to home, Chapel Hill, Asheville, Greenville and Boone, all college towns, are popular with families and retirees.

Elsewhere, Colorado State University has made Fort Collins, Colo., a destination where visitors enjoy microbreweries, performing arts venues, museums and a robust economy driven by companies whose employees enjoy the college-town amenities.

Same goes for Lawrence, Kan., which has been recognized as one of the “best lil’ collge towns” by the likes of Rolling Stone magazine for a music scene that helps promote an active economy undergirded by the University of Kansas. Of course, Austin, Texas, was transformed from a nondescript capital city to a hub of energy and innovation in large part because the area embraced the University of Texas as an asset.

We now know Austin as the home of South by Southwest, a spectacular, internationally known music, film and digital media event made possible each year by a region that embraces its youthful exuberance.

With these cities as models, it is not surprising that when the Elon University School of Law recently hosted a panel conversation with some of our region’s most recognizable civic, business and higher education leaders, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and former Mayor Jim Melvin, now president of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, were among those extolling the value of Greensboro’s college-town attributes.

The sheer volume of college students, let alone the breadth of academic coverage, at no fewer than seven institutions of higher learning in Greensboro— N.C. A&T, Bennett, Elon Law, Greensboro, GTCC, Guilford and UNCG — is impressive and significant to our community’s success.

College students never age as they constantly refresh themselves, arriving as young first-year students and graduating as adults ready to join the workforce, with replacements on their heels. To paraphrase Melvin, college students are like annuities, giving back every year.

Greensboro already offers the kinds of activities and facilities that make college towns attractive to residents and employers. We have outdoor recreation and parks, professional sports teams, nationally recognized performing arts in top-quality locations, with the new Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts eagerly awaited, and culturally significant museums such as the Greensboro Science Center and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

Greensboro also boasts college athletics that perform at a high level of achievement, an important source of local pride. Who doesn’t want to root for the Aggies winning the MEAC in football or the Spartans and Quakers owning the hardwood during the winter months?

In the face of these extraordinary and numerous college town qualities, why does Greensboro seem to be in a continuous search for regional identity? The city’s focus on an industrial past seems logical considering the long and prosperous history in denim and tobacco, but the future also belongs to those ready for the information age.

It is the energetic, enthusiastic and educated graduates ready to work hard in the region’s emerging fields of aeronautics, cybersecurity, nanoscience, health sciences and other disruptive industries who will be best positioned to grow with Greensboro. Committing to these graduates, and investing in our educational institutions, will help us all thrive.

Greensboro might consider leveraging our attributes in a more fulsome way. Several approaches can enhance our college town identity:

  • Embrace Greensboro’s inner college town: Let’s consistently and intentionally celebrate our colleges and their contributions to our city.
  • Let’s spread their swag around town.
  • Let’s brag on our colleges by demonstrating shameless self-promotion when we recruit high-tech industries to the area.
  • Invest in campus collaboration: Let’s enthusiastically invest in collaborative academic enterprises such as Gateway Research Park and Union Square. Imagine all seven campuses coming together to create programs of mutual interest that can concomitantly attract high-tech industry.
  • Continue creating positive public infrastructure: Let’s keep building attractive amenities like streetscapes, bike paths, electric buses, scooters and public wireless networks, just a few of the things that define a traditional college town.
  • These outdoor spaces and public areas foster the active and creative lifestyle valued by students while attracting the contemporary workers that college students become and we prize.
  • Enhance Campus Greensboro: Let’s nurture and expand this important initiative of the Chamber of Commerce. We need to expose current college students to the virtues of living, working and playing in Greensboro after they graduate with an obvious and intentional pathway to settling here.
  • Dedicate marketing efforts to celebrate Greensboro’s academic institutions: Let’s make the college town theme resonate near and far. Our institutions of higher education are the backbone of our future. We must make serious efforts to recognize their successes, which then will draw new friends and employers to our community.
  • College-sponsored events like athletics and the Guilford College Bryan Series highlight the kinds of partnerships that currently bring attention to our community.
  • Might we dare imagine organizing and promoting our music and cultural and athletic events in a showcase of intellectual capital that replicates the success and renown of SXSW?

So many of the things we love about our city are the characteristics of a college town. By creating and advancing an identity that captures our college-town ethos, we will adopt a more authentic and natural presence to anchor a modern economy and community that will benefit Greensboro for decades.

Let’s make Greensboro known for what it really is ... a college town. After all, while industries and businesses come and go, college students in Greensboro are forever.

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