Lori Blanc, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech, says there are three types of Hokies: those who leave Blacksburg and wish that they could come back, those that do come back and those that never leave.
At the town-gown panel discussion March 16, all three of those categories were represented on the panel, joined by a few dozen residents of Blacksburg – including students – in the crowd.
The Deputy Town Manager of Blacksburg, Steve Ross, was the moderator for the event. Ross has been the co-chair of the town-gown meetings for the past eight years along with Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Frank Shushok. This was the second meeting of 2017.
Titled “When Students and Townies Live Together: a panel discussion,” Blanc, along with four other panelists, considered the future of student-resident relations in Blacksburg.
“I have two favorite times of year,” Blanc told the audience, which was mostly residents, despite the discussion taking place in Ambler Johnston Hall on Virginia Tech’s campus. “The first is when students leave for the summer, and the second is when they come back in the fall.”
Blanc described the student’s relationship with the Town of Blacksburg as yin and yang, emphasizing the importance for Hokies to contribute to small businesses other than bars, but also noting that she values the change of pace when students aren’t in town. Tom Raub, owner and founder of T.R. Collections in Blacksburg, was also on the panel.
“Please don’t think the only reason I want you to come downtown is for money,” Raub told the students in the audience. “We didn’t bank our whole business on students. We probably only get 25 or 30 percent of our customers as students. That’s how we designed it.”
The panel was not only limited to residents. Kameron Mangin and Cici Sobin, two members of the Student Life Council at Virginia Tech, participated in the discussion.
“The only time students and residents interact is when they’re ordering a drink,” Mangin said. “I think that’s a shame.”
He and Blanc highlighted the need for the students to go into town and explore, like watching movies at the Lyric, seeing a show at the Moss Arts Center or buying groceries from the farmer’s market. Mangin was admittedly guilty in terms of not knowing Blacksburg beyond its downtown scene.
“I had no idea what the name of your shop was and I had no idea it was there until today,” he confessed to Raub.
The disconnect between students and locals, Raub thinks, is due to all the resources Virginia Tech provides its students.
“The university is creating an environment with so many amenities that students don’t need to leave campus. The university and the town can’t operate independently,” Raub said.
Blanc, who received her doctoral degree from Virginia Tech, said that the food used to be so bad on campus that students were always downtown. Now that Virginia Tech dining is consistently ranked one of the best in the nation, students have no reason to eat off campus.
The Blacksburg residents on the panel wanted students to contribute more to the fabric of Blacksburg, but they definitely did not like the idea of students moving into town.
Greg Caufman, the Director of Blacksburg Operations at Solers, a software company, was the fifth panelist. He said he likes the volume of students in town, because he knows he can hire high-quality students for internships and co-ops. At the same time, Caufman said the growth of the university is the biggest risk to student-resident relations.
“The growth needs to be managed in conjunction with the town,” Caufman said. “Virginia Tech grows faster than the town can handle, and that drives students into the neighborhoods.”
In terms of student population, Caufman is right. In 2016, Virginia Tech received its most applications in school history, breaking the record previously set in 2015. On-campus housing is guaranteed for freshman, but due to the large class sizes, some freshmen have been forced to live in study lounges or with residential advisors — who traditionally live alone — until space clears up on campus.
As a result, more upperclassmen have been moving off-campus into town. This is problematic, the panelists agreed, because of the noise students bring with them.
“That’s the thing that’s always bugged me about the town-gown meetings, as a resident and an elected official,” said Town Council member John Bush after the meeting. “The people I talk to here are the honor students. They’re the folks that are straight arrows. Good people, good grades. They’re not the problem folks.”
Raub downplayed this idea earlier in the panel discussion, saying residents are “watching too much History Channel or whatever it is. There’s not hoards of students purse-snatching.”
“There should be a common line of civility, kindness and respect that should be infused in everything that we do,” Blanc said. “I have a 99-year-old neighbor, and I worry that she can hear these parties.”
Sobin admitted that she has come close to calling the cops on her student neighbors, but said that parties and noise, which Blanc described as an age-old divide, come with the territory in a college town.
The next town-gown meeting is a community discussion on race, religion and diversity and is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 20 at Amber Johnston Hall.