KETR

Keck, Williams Explore Town And Gown Relations

Sep 8, 2016

Texas A&M University-Commerce interim president Dr. Ray Keck, III, is working alongside City of Commerce mayor Wyman Williams in order to create an environment that encourages University employees to not only work in Commerce but to choose to live there, too.

The idea of a "University village" is explored by Williams and Keck alongside Jerrod Knight during the September airing of The President's Perspective, a monthly half-hour radio conversation with Keck.

Hear the full program here. A transcript follows.

Jerrod Knight: Hello, and welcome to the President's Perspective, a monthly half-hour chat with the Interim President and CEO of the Texas A&M University-Commerce, Dr. Ray Keck. I'm Jerrod Knight. On today's program, we're exploring Town and Gown Relations between the university and the City of Commerce with our guest, the Honorable Wyman Williams, Mayor of the City of Commerce.

First these quick headlines. The Office of Research and Sponsored Programs has announced recipients of the 2016/2017 Junior Faculty Research Award Competition. It was open to all A&M-Commerce full-time tenure track faculty members. The Competition recognizes Junior Faculty for outstanding research consisting of systematic study directed toward fuller scientific knowledge or understanding of the subject studied. Funding is provided for innovative research and those funds come from the Faculty Research Endowment. This year's winners include Dr. Lin Guo of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences and Assistant Professor of Computational Linguistics, Dr. Christian Hempelmann of the Department of Literature and Languages and also the Director of the Ontological Semantic Technology Lab at A&M Commerce.

Texas A&M University Commerce Department of Curriculum and Instruction professors, Dr. Gilbert Naizer, Dr. Martha Foote and Dr. Carole Walker have received the Texas Teacher Residency Program Grant Award for the second consecutive cycle. This award is sponsored by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. More than $1.3 million will continue the work of an apprenticeship model for Texas teacher preparation and training model, leading to teacher certification and Masters of Education in the Art of Teaching. Teacher residencies, which are not unlike medical residencies, are a state-of-the-art method for teacher preparation, according to Dr. Naizer.

The A&M Commerce Lion's Football Team has been ranked 18th nationally by D2Football.com preseason poll administered by the American Football Coaches' Association. The team is also predicted to finish first in the conference this year, back for a three-peat championship. Coming of last week's match-up with the University of Faith in Florida, the Lions look to continue their success against Delta State this Saturday with kickoff scheduled for 6 PM.

This is the President's Perspective and, Dr. Keck, welcome to the studio.

Dr. Ray Keck: Thank you. Good morning.

Knight: Good morning, and we have in the studio the Honorable Wyman Williams, Mayor of the City of Commerce. Mr. Williams, good morning.

Wyman Williams: Good morning.

Knight: How are you?

Williams: I am doing well.

Knight: Town and Gown Relations, this floaty thing ... If you're outside of Commerce, if you're outside of a university town, you don't really think about what that relationship might be like. If you're a town that happens to have a university or if you're a university that happens to have an incredibly supportive town throughout the history of the institution, you sort of have this fantastic resource on both sides of the fence. I think that you guys are working to sort of blur where this fence even ends.

Keck: Well, and Jerrod, I think you said it just right. It's a town that has a university and a university that has a town. All residents of Commerce, I'm sure, know the story of when Professor Mayo moved his university to Commerce from Cooper after a fire. More than once, in Commerce, new obstacles reared their heads, including a fire, and at one point, the citizens of Commerce paid to build back the university when it was still Professor Mayo. The history of the relationship is intense and immediate and intimate.

Knight: Mr. Williams, you've been a part of the Commerce community well before you became a part of the East Texas State community. Why don't you reflect on years of your relationship with this town, with this community and with this institution.

Williams: Jerrod, starting in the early 1950's, I observed the evolution of the university and the town, the university getting larger and larger, the town not growing at the same rate, the economy changing almost completely to where now the university is the driver of our economy. Our town has not kept pace with the growth of the university. I'm just delighted to have the opportunity to be Mayor at this time and hope to help our town reflect the excellence of our university.

Knight:  The town has an opportunity to support the institution, but we also hear a lot of times about the institution playing a major role in helping to make things happen with the city. What's that dynamic like?

Keck: Well, right now, we have a very concrete challenge to put on the table for all of us. Over the years, faculty and staff have slowly moved away from commerce. This is not good for the local taxing districts, of course, but it's also not good for the university. It's not good for the students. We have here the golden model for a university, a residential community in a beautiful setting in which faculty and students together study and work and help young people find their lives.

To have faculty in residence is tremendously important but it has slowly, over the years, eroded. There was a time, I'm told ... Dr. McFarland told me there was a time when faculty and staff were required to live in Commerce. I don't think we'll ever go back to that demand, but to create opportunities for that to happen and to entice, to grant incentives to stimulate that kind of a community here near the campus, that is a challenge that we are going to take up today and Mayor Williams has very kindly agreed to help us think through how we can do that in a way to benefit the city and the university.

Williams: Jerrod, some things that have been going on in the last year and a half are quite positive in making our town more attractive to anyone to come and invest and we hope, especially our university employees. We have been cleaning up rental property that had gone beyond its life in usefulness. We have taken down over a hundred and ten structures. I say we, but this has been a process of what's called a Buildings and Standards Commission. It's been very effective in getting owners to agree with us to either bringing the structure up to current standards or letting us help them get rid of it. We've had much of those hundred and ten properties taken down voluntarily because they were beyond their useful life and it makes our town look better. We have many more to go and now that we have a new city manager that is going to be directing that cleanup, I'm very pleased to be a part of it, as Mayor.

Knight: Talk about the one thing that the town might benefit most from the institution supporting within the next two or three years.

Williams: Well, Dr. Keck has been very open about discussions of possibly the university investing in housing that would be appropriate for university employees and become available by going ahead and building on a speculative basis and actually selling them, which means they go back on the tax role for the city. Then when the person is ready to sell the home, the university would have the right to purchase the home and offer it to another employee.

Keck: I think the challenge is to create a residential community near the university that would be attractive to faculty and staff coming here. In fact, my hope would be that it would become the place of choice to live. The university would enter into a public-private partnership to acquire the property and then invite a developer to build the houses ... the apartments, townhouses, single-family dwellings, a range of possibilities. Then sell the property, make it available to faculty and staff at the university. At the point the person is ready to sell, leaves employment at the university, the university purchases the property and makes it available to another family. That means that the property goes on the tax role and the person buying it owns it and the equity in it is the owner's, the tenant, the inhabitant. At the same time, it's near the university and it's part of the Commerce community. We're talking about if you start at Neal Street as the western edge and move east to Monroe Street and then further. There's some just very nice sites, some of them nestled, really, on the campus and others adjacent to the campus.

Knight: How do we work on the idea of students, and Dr. Keck, this is going to be the first time that you're seeing this, in students investing their time and energy in this region beyond just in the classroom and beyond just their campus involvement, but sticking around through Thursday evening, Friday, Saturday, Sunday here in Commerce. There's sort of a complaint in the ether that students come for school and they leave on the weekends and they leave during the summertime and they're not sticking around. Sometimes, that evidenced by local businesses that choose days of the week to not operate because there's just not very many people in town. What can we do collectively to encourage folks to stick around?

Keck: Well, I think first of all, to recognize that at the university there are a tremendous number of activities underway all the time. In any given weekend, the opportunities in athletics, in the arts, lectures ... The riches that accrue at a university of this size are just immense. I think part of the challenge is to have faculty present with students. The example is not a good one that Thursday afternoon, the faculty leaves, or much of the faculty leaves. Much of the staff leaves. Students observe the behavior and perhaps wonder, should I be leaving. There are some really nice spots near the university for students to hang out. There need to be more. One of the things we're looking at is the possibility of creating, on the site of the present president's house, an event center, multiple usage for people from all over the region. It could be everything from a concert to an exhibit to a play to an athletic event and perhaps around that could cluster commercial pads for businesses. These are all possibilities and I think these things will happen.

As an immediate first step, the creation of a university village adjacent to campus populated by people who live and work at the university ... This would be the best single thing I think we could do right now to help the institution and help the city. Now it's complicated to do this and we're just beginning to try to put all the pieces together. We will, of course, be led by the A&M System and the real estate offices at the system to try to figure out how to make this happen. It would be the city recognizing the importance and I would hope we could present this to the Council and they might consider some sort of tax incentives for the first year or two to encourage people to jump into this. We're talking about largely young people who are beginning their professional lives.

Williams: I can't speak for the Council, but I don't know of a person currently on the Council that would not want to talk about encouraging such an endeavor to get more and more people who work here to live here. The town benefits so much from leadership that these people offer to various organizations in town. It increases opportunities for students. I like to think of it as creating an ideal learning community that would be so much fun for everyone to enjoy.

Knight: The institution is, in fact, building programs that could draw the community in. We've got this magnificent music building, a state-of-the-art building that's the only one of its kind here when you get east of the Metroplex. You've got to come from all around. The institution has, you know, a fantastic Championship winning D2 football program. It's got award-winning programs. There's a university playhouse, all these reasons for folks to come in so tourism has to be something that we could easily connect to this institution as well. There's a reason to come to Commerce beyond the reasons that already exist because of what the institution is doing just in terms of programs on a weekly basis.

Keck: Well, and to have this university village near the ... Imagine a family or a faculty member, a staff member, you walk out your door and a block and a half, you walk into your job. You have students into your house. You've very much caught up in the walk-able community life. This is something that, throughout the country, is gathering tremendous steam right now. How do you make a walk-able community? If you look at downtown Sulphur Springs, this is a very good model for that. On-street parking, two-way traffic that moves very slowly, passing shops and restaurants. This is the goal. This is the model. If something like that could spring up near the university, around the university, adjacent to the university, at the same time increasing opportunity for housing, attracting faculty and staff to locate in Commerce instead of half an hour or forty-five minutes down I-30, this would be transforming and it would make life easier for the people who are able to do it.

Williams: Jerrod, retail opportunities occur because of rooftop numbers. Until there are rooftop numbers, retail is not sustainable so this is something that has to work hand in hand. Dr. Keck has mentioned Sulphur Springs and I assure you, any of us who have traveled to downtown Sulphur Springs in the last few years are amazed at how it has become a destination by design. Now think of this. We are a community because of our university. We are a destination for thousands of people every day, but we don't have what it takes to keep them here. That's what we must imitate and our friends in Sulphur Springs are extremely cooperative in trying to help us understand how to do it. I think our current city council is going to be very serious about this.

Knight: Well, we've talked, too, in the past, Wyman, about the idea of the Economic Development Corporation encouraging more business to come to Commerce over the years. You know, we've had some promise and then we've had some pullout and then we've had some other businesses to come and take their place. What makes Commerce an attractive place for businesses, for industry? You would think having an institution of this caliber right here in this town could encourage business to come here and perhaps benefit from recent graduates as they go into their careers. Is there something about Commerce that we could be capitalizing on in order to attract business?

Williams: Well, a great deal is just the simple numbers of young people who sincerely want to work and are intelligent and learn quickly and can work flexible hours, need to work flexible hours. It's just a huge market that we have not truly capitalized on.

Keck: Also, I think there is an increasing hunger in our nation as we observe these wrenching examples of social unrest and social disorder around us, there's a hunger for a safe and beautiful place to live and raise one's kids. Commerce offers that. I'm looking out the window right now at beautiful trees, a beautiful lawn in the country and safe. Yet a little over an hour and one is in downtown Dallas. This is very nice. This is very attractive. Quality of life, it's very easy to achieve that quality of life and tranquility and beauty and immediacy that so many communities struggle to offer.

Williams: Jerrod, up through the 1970's, I enjoyed living in a community where the vast majority of university employees lived in Commerce. Their children went to Commerce schools. I attended schools with them. In addition to that, international students have been here for many, many years. What a way to get a young child to think about adventuring the world. Introduce them to people who are right here every day and can tell their stories of how in the world they found Commerce, Texas. It's just a fascinating question to ask.

Knight: We're speaking with Mayor Wyman Williams of the City of Commerce and Dr. Ray Keck, President of Texas A&M University, Commerce. This is the President's Perspective.

We see Commerce, hopefully, in five or ten years with a vibrant community, not only of students and hopefully faculty and staff but also these faculty living in town and taking advantage of all the things that Commerce has to offer, adding to the tax base, which let's be honest, that's where the money comes from, encouraging retail, encouraging restaurants and businesses.

We're seeing this massive growth in Greenville right down the road, these restaurants coming in. I don't know the immediate or long-term success of that but at present, there are a lot of things happening which can, oftentimes, pull people away from Commerce. Wyman, we've had conversations about this a lot that folks just need to ... They're here in Commerce during the day. They need to spend their money in Commerce.

Williams: Well, there are so many people in this town every day that our city does not touch tax-wise because they don't live here or we have a couple of thousand students that live on campus and we don't tax those youngsters except sales tax. If there are things that they can buy here in town at a competitive price, if they'll go out of their way to do that, they can enhance city services such as police protection, fire protection and better streets.

Knight: Right, because they're using streets. Right? They're using the resource. They're using all the things that the city has provided but they may not otherwise be contributing back to help for maintenance or whatever the cost happens to be unless they're spending here in town. When they spend with the campus and off-campus and so forth, they are, in fact, contributing through sales taxes.

Keck: The university, of course, the amenity, the blessing for the City of Commerce is tremendous but there's a larger benefit in Hunt County. I would hope this would be perceived as something for the entire county. Wyman alluded earlier to students coming here and spending their young lives here and developing an affection for this place. Within twenty or thirty miles of Commerce are lots of little communities and beautiful places to live and for young people, for international students, to think long-term of a place to put down roots and stay.

I've never met a graduate of East Texas State that didn't remember his or her experience here with enormous affection, gratitude and loaning. If they've left, longing to come back. I think people in our society are hungry for the type of rural beauty and tranquility that can be offered and at the same time proximity to the Metroplex. We need to talk more about this and create opportunities for people to be able to become part of it.

Knight: Well, I think from a student perspective, it allows you to focus. It limits distractions. I mean, there are plenty of distractions. Having been a student not too long ago, there are plenty of distractions from work but at the same time, there are so many things to do. I left town on the weekends as a student but it was for employment because the thing that I wanted to do, there are only so many radio stations in Commerce, Texas. The fact is, I came home to Commerce. Commerce was home so I have that where I'm connected with the institution. I want to come back.

Keck: There are thousands of young people who are thinking exactly what you're saying. Commerce is home. Being back here, setting foot on this campus is going back home. To be able to locate in this region, nearby, that would be, I think, a tremendous dream of many, many, many young people.

Knight: There are well-meaning well-to-do folks who are here every single day to help make this community better through not just being employed in this place and working for this place, but being involved in this place with extra-curricular activities and so forth, but they don't live here.

Keck: Well, is there anyone in the United States of America who hears the phrase "college town" that doesn't smile? We all know that is the nicest place to live. That's the nicest place to raise your kids. We are a college town, if ever there was one. We need to create more opportunities for people to live in it and enjoy it.

Williams: Well, I experienced the college town all my life, from earning a living off campus to becoming a part of the campus personnel. What a great place to raise a family. What a great place to have activities that enhance curiosity among children. That's what our kids enjoyed so much. They revere that to this day, having a chance to grow up in this town.

Knight: Well, and I hear graduates of East Texas State talk about how, when the faculty all lived nearby, we grew up around faculty's kids, their families. We were part of that. That's also a wonderful thing for young people going away to school, to become close to a faculty family. That's a beautiful experience that no one ever forgets and that people talk about for the rest of their lives. That's all very possible. We just have to be more deliberate in setting it out.

Williams: I do like the idea of families that coming up where a neighbor or a family friend also happens to be a university professor. It sort of makes higher education as a choice more attainable, more possible for folks who maybe don't know. You can be raised in this town and still choose not to go to college but I think that it becomes more of a reality, more of a thing that could happen when you're in and around it. I think for me and my family, that would be the attractiveness of living in a college town.

Keck: I think it also models a very important point that needs to be repeated about higher education in America today and that is universities are not ivory towers. Colleges are not places of refuge. They're very much embedded in communities, in a college town. The people who teach and work there are the people who live in the city. The students who come there to study become residents of that place and spend the rest of their lives wishing to return and thinking about it joyously. That happens everywhere. That happens in Commerce. We just need to be more deliberate in making it easier for those kinds of relationships to flourish.

Knight: Mayor Williams, I appreciate your visit.

Williams: Well, thank you for this opportunity.

Knight: Dr. Keck, a pleasure as always.

Keck: Jerrod, thank you so much.

Knight: The President's Perspective is recorded and produced at KETR’s studio facility in historic Binnion Hall on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce and archives of this and other programs are available online at KETR.org. While you're there, click the donate button and make a contribution in support of KETR ahead of our Fall Sustaining Membership Campaign, which begins this weekend. I'm Jerrod Knight. Thanks for listening.