The ebb and flow town-gown relations briefly surfaced in the recent Greencastle Mayor's race.
Heated discussions led to emails to the Banner Graphic encouraging us to re-examine the issue of the relationship between DePauw University and the Greencastle community -- this time from the town side.
Taking the pulse of a community often involves a visit to local, bars, coffee shops, barber shops, and hair salons, where conversation can often serve as a rough barometer for local sentiment. In almost every location, the pulse registers a resounding: DePauw is good for business but bad for tax rolls.
"I think we've got a good relationship," said Sherley Hensley, who spends her days doing nails and keeping counsel at the Suntan Studio. "But in the chair, I hear complaints."
Hensley made a veiled reference to noise and litter produced by DePauw students, but quickly balanced that with the financial benefits of doing business in a university town.
"It improves our retail," she said. "There are 2,200 more people shopping at Wal-Mart or going up town to buy books."
Hensley was not alone in the opinion that without DePauw University revenue, Greencastle would not be the same place to live or do business.
"I've heard a lot of people make comments that DePauw gets what they want," said Sue Miller, co-owner of The Putnam Inn, adding, "but if those people went looking for jobs, they'd be looking at DePauw … they hire a lot of local people."
Only guarantee in life is death and taxes … not so.
Miller says that the biggest barstool complaint she hears is about DePauw's lack of contribution to Greencastle's property tax rolls. DePauw's various expansion projects in previous years have led to the demolition of numerous houses that have been replaced by student housing, which is exempt from property tax.
"I've watched the ebb and flow of our relationship over 22 years -- there have been times of strain and calm," said DePauw University President Robert Bottoms, when asked about the current status of town-gown relationships.
As he mapped times of progress and trouble, he was quick to turn to the conflict between the university's need for expansion and local property taxes coffers.
"We face the same problems that an urban university would face -- we wanted to expand but we had no room."
DePauw's need for expansion was never greater than after the Rector Hall dormitory fire in the spring of 2002.
"Right after the fire, the town was wonderful to our students," Bottoms said.
"They took students into their homes. But eventually we had to provide permanent housing for 100 students. We chose to build apartments, so the university bought houses and tore them down," he said.
And there, as they say, is the rub.
According to Bottoms, friends of the university believe that the look of the neighborhood along Jackson Street was improved by the new construction. Others were frustrated that property tax dollars evaporated into the university's seemingly endless tax exemption clause.
Greencastle tax rolls are slimmer, but the university is not wholly exempt. According to DePauw figures, they paid more than $45,000 in property taxes to the city in 2006. Their taxable real-estate ranges from housing for university professors to the 481-acre DePauw University Nature Park.
President Bottoms also suggests that university contributes to the local government and community in other ways, citing DePauw's donation of a $320,000 fire truck to the city in 2001.
Fundraising headlines are made by university students regularly, from the Greek Week drive that raised $3,500 for Putnam County Habitat for Humanity or weekly donations to the Putnam County Emergency Food Pantry.
According to Bottoms and many Greencastle residents, the 2006 Relay For Life is one example of how well the town and university communities work together. That event raised more than $215,000 for cancer research.
A report on community relations released by DePauw and Greencastle community representatives echoes the sentiment that DePauw's monetary contributions are often viewed as a flash in the pan, which is quickly forgotten. However, their donations of time and money don't seem to be lost on local residents, who quickly report them when asked about what DePauw contributes to the community.
A class apart
Of the 366 mid-western schools evaluated by the Princeton Review each year, DePauw ranks number seven in strained town-gown relationships. That dubious ranking is only bested by DePauw's number one ranking on the publication's "fraternity and sorority scene," and its number two spot on the "lots of beer" list.
A great deal of the blame for the strained relationship between DePauw and the city might rest on a class divide between students and the local community.
A May article appearing in The DePauw student newspaper placed the median income of a Greencastle household at roughly $8,000 less than the price tag for one year of study at DePauw. According to the article, the economic gap is a source off resentment and misunderstanding on the town side.
"I was surprised by what I got from the article in the school newspaper," said life-long Greencastle resident Dusty Trisler. "I didn't think the relationship was that bad until I saw all the things they [DePauw] had posted on the web site."
Trisler still believes that when compared to other surrounding communities, Greencastle is doing well.
"I don't think that Greencastle is one of the poorest cities in Indiana. They must believe that everybody in this town needs help," she said.
Many Greencastle residents and business owners interviewed believe class differences are not really a serious source of tension, partly because so many local kids attend the university.
Carolyn Hammond, owner of Moore's Bar in downtown Greencastle, discounted the idea that there is a divide along economic lines.
"I know a lot of middle class parents who send their kids there," she said.
Behind the beer taps at Moore's, Hammond says she sees students and her local customers mix well.
"Students are out to have a good time, they're young," she said. "They don't tear things up any more than the townies do."
On the other side of town, perched in a straight back chair waiting for an audience with a pair of barber's shears, Max Evans, 71, had some strong opinions about the town-gown relationship.
His points of contention focused sharply on family values and property taxes, but when asked if economic divisions caused tension he issued a firm, "No."
"I don't think that's an issue," he said. "I know a lot of middle class kids who go to DePauw with grants and assistance."
With 46 percent of students receiving need-based financial aid, and the average freshman need-based aid package at more than $22,000, many DePauw families are not paying full freight to attend the university -- a fact not lost on many Greencastle citizens.
Good fences don't always make good neighbors
Late night parties and garbage foster complaints on the fringes of many college campuses, and DePauw is no different. But at least one Greencastle resident is glad that there is no fence separating her home from her university neighbors.
Karen Hayes, 29, lives just down the street from DePauw and believes that though there are some inconveniences to sharing close quarters with students, her three children reap the benefits of seeing college life first hand.
"I didn't get to go to college -- it's my one big regret -- so I'm really pushing how important college is for my kids," Hayes said.
"They are able to see all the benefits of going to college right down the street. Now my kids say 'one of these days I'm going to go to college and do that.' Kids who don't see that every day may not get the same kind of encouragement," Hayes said.
A final word from our local pollster
A highly unscientific poll, recently conducted on the Banner Graphic web site, revealed that there is little consensus when it comes to town-gown sentiment.
Only 7 percent of the web site's 276 re-spondents said there was "no tension," while 24 percent re-plied, "It's a big problem for the city and campus."
Twenty-two percent clicked the option that there was "some tension," but the largest group, 46 percent, replied that the issue "has been exaggerated."
The poll hints at the mainstream view of townsfolk interviewed, which goes something like this: "I don't have any problem with DePauw … but I know some people who do."