The Canton Initiative strives to tie the University and its host community together for mutual benefit.By Jessica McPherson ’08
“The futures of St. Lawrence and Canton are totally intertwined,” says St. Lawrence University President Daniel F. Sullivan. This is the attitude that has led St. Lawrence, over the past decade, to launch and maintain the Canton Initiative. A project that has dedicated over $2 million to the development of Canton, the Canton Initiative’s aim is to fund new business ventures, restore historic places and improve the quality of housing in the village.
The Canton Initiative began in 1997, when the Board of Trustees pledged $1 million toward improvements in the University’s hometown. Vice President of Administrative Operations Tom Coakley explains, “It really all started with President Sullivan coming in and seeing a need, as did all of us, to improve the area in which we live.” The initial goals were to:
·Stimulate investment in properties in Canton to improve the overall attractiveness of the community and promote economic enhancement;
·Directly increase the tax base rate of the village through investment and development;
·Establish and maintain a partnership spirit between Canton and the University.
Coakley adds, “A Canton Community Action Plan was already in place, but we recognized that there were areas in particular that St. Lawrence was interested in preserving and enhancing so as to encourage families to want to come back to the area.”
According to Sullivan, through partnerships with others in the enhancement of Canton the administration also sought “to improve the University’s image in our community. People in Canton, and in the surrounding area, often think of the University as aloof, interested only in its own issues and advancement, and not prepared to be a player in the betterment of the quality of life of others.”
The first project on the docket, according to Coakley, could not have been more obvious. A fire-damaged building in a prominent corner location on Main Street was set to be knocked down. Because demolition would have caused what Coakley refers to as “the missing tooth effect” and could have potentially hurt the aesthetic quality of the downtown area, Canton Initiative support gave it a reprieve. Over time, Coakley says, several businesses have set up shop in the renovated building.
In 2001, the University fortified the program’s goals as the Board of Trustees added another $1 million to the Canton Initiative fund. Thanks in part to this infusion, the project has successfully helped a variety of local businesses. Some examples, drawn from the Canton Initiative Web site:
·The opening of Sposa Bella, a bridal and formal-wear shop on Main Street;
·The opening of a new branch of Hackett’s, a regional clothing and home furnishings store;
·Redevelopment of the Heritage Islands in the Grasse River, including Willow Island Park;
·Construction of a new Canton fire station and conversion of the old fire station into professional office space.
Has it worked? Lynn Clark, proprietor of The Gallery, a boutique that provides a marketplace for handcrafted work produced by regional and nationally known artists at 67 Main Street, says, “I bought The Gallery a few years ago, thanks to the Canton Initiative. Through the initiative, I was able to get a low-interest loan and pay off the loan in a reasonable amount of time.”
Students at St. Lawrence have also taken an interest in helping the Canton Initiative move forward. Some see educational value in it. Jon Cardinal ’08, former Thelomathesian Society president and a North Country native, says, “The initiative serves as a model for use in developing our own communities upon graduation. It presents an example of how an institution can devote its resources to changing the community outside its walls.”
In 2006, Thelmo led the effort to encourage local business owners to purchase student identification card reader machines so that St. Lawrence students could use their campus-wide accounts off campus, at places such as Sergi’s Pizzeria, Blackbird Café and the Partridge Café. Not only does this allow St. Lawrence students to enjoy a greater variety of food, but it also offers a new opportunity to support locally-owned businesses, explains Cardinal. Plans call for expanding the service to more Canton restaurants and stores.
Along with successes, the initiative has had its challenges. Sullivan says, “One great challenge has to do with actually achieving improvements in the quality of life and economic vitality of the community with the resources we and others have available to invest, given the historic economic stress on our region. Our approach has been to provide incentives to others to make investments, and to lower the cost borne by others in making good local investments. We have not chosen to purchase properties and convert them ourselves to new uses we believe will make Canton more attractive—we’ve tried in this way not to behave like a 900-pound gorilla, but to assist local initiatives so others have a stake in the outcomes.”
Difficulties acknowledged, Coakley points out that St. Lawrence has been involved in 23 Canton Initiative projects over a 10-year period. These have provided approximately 85 jobs and leveraged approximately $5.3 million in tax base improvements, he says.
Sullivan comments, “It has certainly gone in the direction I thought it would. In general, we’ve stuck pretty closely to our original intentions.”
Looking forward, Cardinal adds, “I think the Initiative’s greatest success is the message it sends – that the University has a clear commitment to the community, and that its future is dependent upon the community’s future. This synergy will yield benefits to both the University and the North Country that we cannot even imagine now.”
Economics and French double major Jess McPherson, a writing intern in University communications in spring 2008, understands the need the Canton Initiative addresses, having grown up in nearby Ogdensburg, N.Y.