For the better part of two centuries, residents of this Rust Belt town that rose and fell with the American manufacturing industry rarely ventured near the college campus just a short walk from downtown. University of Notre Dame students and faculty rarely left the pristine, 1,300-acre grounds.
“Most of the citizens didn’t feel that welcome on campus,” says John Affleck-Graves, Notre Dame’s vice president for 15 years. “And students didn’t feel that welcome in the community.”
But these days, area business owners and entrepreneurs team up with students and professors inside a handsome 55,000 square-foot innovation lab directly across from campus. Across town, dozens of researchers develop technology for jet engines and power plants at the country’s foremost turbomachinery laboratory, a collaboration between the university and city orchestrated under Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has made South Bend’s resurgence the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
Scenes from South Bend
For decades national trends have increasingly favored America’s “superstar” cities – highly digital, coastal metropolises like New York, San Francisco and Boston that serve as magnets for talent and resources. Since the last financial crisis, according to a November 2018 report by the Brookings Institution, the country’s 53 largest metro areas, representing roughly half the country’s population, have accounted for nearly three quarters of total employment growth. Cities similar to South Bend – medium and small municipalities, often away from the coasts – have languished.
Yet there is a prevailing exception: smaller cities that happen to be college towns. Major universities, says Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co-author of the 2018 report, offer an anchor of financial and human capital that helps create a healthy local economic ecosystem.
As centers of research and innovation, universities are also well equipped to help residents transition from declining industries to growing ones. A 2016 study by Brookings completed for the Wall Street Journal analyzed 16 geographic regions that suffered disproportionate manufacturing losses yet maintained strong overall job growth. Half were major university towns, including Springfield, Missouri (Missouri State); Athens, Georgia (University of Georgia); and Charlottesville, Virginia (University of Virginia).
“This plays out over and over, at every scale and within every state,” says Muro. And while major coastal metros may attract a higher concentration of elite firms and global talent, midsize cities with universities benefit more from a “stickiness factor,” says John Van Reenen, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who co-authored a 2016 study on the economic impact of universities around the world. Students are more likely to come from the surrounding area, and more likely to stay once they graduate. For otherwise struggling regions the presence of a strong college, says Van Reenen, “can actually be a lifeline.”
Some regions have fallen but rebounded. Decades ago Lee County, Alabama – a rural area more than 100 miles from Atlanta, the nearest major city – hemorrhaged factory jobs to China, creating a ripple effect that shuttered businesses and depressed towns. But since 2001 the country has seen 14,000 new jobs, including at a new General Electric plant. The catalyst was Auburn University, which, along with attracting new investment, trained area farmers in new technology and assisted laid-off workers.
Many residents in South Bend, whose economy cratered after the closure of its Studebaker auto factory in 1963, are hopeful that collaborating with Notre Dame will also lead to lasting prosperity. Many are optimistic, pointing to signature new projects like Eddy Street Commons, an ambitious, university-led development that’s transforming a formerly blighted area of South Bend into a mixed-used retail and residential district.
“If you’d have been here 10 years ago,” says Steve Luecke, a former mayor, “and then come back today – it would have looked like a completely different place.”