Most everyone in the North East community was surprised at the announcement by Mercyhurst University that all programs at the North East campus will be moving to Erie and the property here put up for sale. Though disappointing to see them leave, their explanation for the move makes good business sense, however part of their announcement included their intention to restrict the upcoming sale to a for-profit entity. Although it would be nice if the new owner contributes to our tax base, deciding what's best for our community after they leave strikes some of us as a bit presumptuous, especially if the aim is to prevent another college from buying the property and becoming a competitor of Mercyhurst. Whatever the case, this change of ownership of such a large and central property holds both great potential and considerable risk to the future of North East as a whole and everyone with a stake in our community needs to be aware of the process as it unfolds.
Plans are moving quickly
At the North East Township planning commission meeting on September 3rd, a surveyor was there with plans to subdivide part of the Mercyhurst property so it could be sold separately. Some questions arose, but the individual presenting the plans was unable to answer. It would have been far more appropriate for Mercyhurst to have a representative of the university there to explain what they were doing or had in mind, even if it was only for the subdivided portion being discussed. One might even ask why they were so quickly subdividing the property. How do they know a potential buyer would not want it? Do they already have a buyer and has the deal already been made?
While most of the commissioners were ready to quickly approve the subdivision, Dennis Kershner expressed reservations about making any decisions before the township had more information about the university's upcoming plans and the others agreed to table the matter until the next monthly meeting while they discussed with the township solicitor what options they might have.
Small colleges are in trouble
No matter who the buyer for this property turns out to be, for-profit, non-profit, college or something else, some of the issues that drove Mercyhurst to consolidate, whether they openly admit it or not, are likely centered around the issue of small colleges everywhere dealing with shrinking enrollments as they compete for a smaller pool of students. A recent news story predicts at least 25% of small colleges will fail in the next two decades, so the idea that North East can continue with an idyllic college campus atmosphere in the town center may not be an option even if many might prefer it, although some other kind of school might work.
Transparency and community involvement are essential
Mercyhurst, now that they've decided to leave, will be looking for a buyer in order to get out from under the property as soon as possible, using proceeds from the sale to help fund planned expansion at the main campus, but the North East community is going to be dealing with whatever takes their place. The buildings on campus are quite impressive, but coming up with alternative uses may take some creative thinking. The least attractive alternative is an extended period with the buildings unoccupied. Community members could even play a part in the sales process, finding potential buyers as they come up with new ideas to transform the campus.
Mercyhurst may want to keep everything hidden from view until a deal is made, but with a transparent process, a potential buyer could meet with residents to explain their intentions and the community could rally around to show support, giving the buyer reassurance the community is on board and the residents might sleep easier knowing their home town was not going to suffer a dramatic upheaval. This transition should be one where everyone is involved and the township and borough planners need to step back and take a breath before quickly approving the first thing placed before them. At the same time, residents of North East need to show up at planning meetings to hear the discussions and voice their opinions because complaining about the outcome after it's been determined, helps no one.