June 2, 2017
Giving main street a “boost of youth”: College towns bolster small business community
The following post was written by Cameron Potts, Vice President of Public Relations and Community Management at Deluxe Corporation, as part of our weeklong focus on Frostburg, Maryland.
Throughout what would be considered “rural America,” small towns have long struggled with losing their younger population. With a limited number of high-paying jobs for professionals, the trend has remained that high-school students will go away to college and rarely return to their roots. While some small towns struggle to fight the trend of shrinking young demographics, small towns with colleges and universities brace themselves to receive the wave of entering freshmen each year. With this influx of young population comes the unique challenge of retaining and keeping those students engaged in their new community.
Frostburg, Maryland, is one small town striving to find ways to engage a captive audience that floods this small town in the Allegheny Mountains each fall. Home to Frostburg State University, the town boasts a year-round population of roughly 9,000, which swells to nearly 15,000 when school is in session. Small towns with sizeable universities are found all over the country. While they don’t rival traditional college towns like South Bend, Indiana; Ann Arbor, Michigan; State College, Pennsylvania; and other quintessential “college towns,” for a town the size of Frostburg, adding that many students each year can not only boost its economy but drive future small-business growth.
When we visited Frostburg as part of the short-list visits for the Small Business Revolution contest, our team witnessed a sort of renaissance in the downtown. New businesses were opening, from coffee shops to vintage record stores and recording studios. An historic downtown hotel was refurbishing the “speakeasy” during our stay, and several women-owned businesses had recently opened their doors. There was a buzz of activity in town.
The newly appointed president of Frostburg State, Ronald Nowaczyk, sensed the momentum as well. New to the community, Nowaczyk understands the importance of connecting his students to the community where they spend so much time. This isn’t just about college kids going to bars or hanging out in coffee shops studying. Nowaczyk sees opportunities for students to become engaged in the community, eventually sticking around after college.
The new generation of students are both activists and entrepreneurs. Many studies indicate today’s millennial generation doesn’t plan to work for large organizations. They want to create and invent and carve their own paths. Places like Frostburg can help make those dreams a reality.
Why? Because Frostburg has an active small-business community, led by business leaders who encourage people to take a chance. The fact that there is a mix of older businesses like McFarland Candies and Repurb, a vintage furniture store, within walking distance of each other gives younger entrepreneurs a sense of opportunity.
Nowaczyk also saw the prospect for collaboration between students and small-business owners. As is the case for most small businesses, hiring part-time help or outsourcing needs like accounting needs and the like can be difficult and may not be affordable. In a community like Frostburg, college students can gain business acumen by volunteering their services to small businesses – a win/win for both parties.
Newer businesses like Yellow K Records and Mountain City Center for the Arts show the vibrant spirit that exists in Frostburg, one likely encouraged by the presence of Frostburg State. Creative energy flows from universities and colleges, which can bleed into the culture of a community.
During a visit to Mountain City Center for the Arts, we watched an original 15-minute play by uber-talented youth ages 11-18. They could sing, dance and act, exuding a joy for the chance to share creative energy in their home town.
The Frostburg State campus sits just a couple miles from downtown Frostburg, and in some communities, that distance might as well be 50 miles. Yet here, because of a strong and vibrant business community and leaders like Ronald Nowaczyk, those two miles are as short as two-feet. Watching these two entities continue to work together will help define the type of small town Frostburg continues to be.