By Neil Kleiman

Anchors Up: How Cities and Anchor Institutions Can Work Together For a Brighter Future

For a ship, the anchor’s role is to stop it from moving. Unlike its nautical namesake, anchor institutions, be it a university or a medical center, have the ability to move cities forward and reshape their hometowns for the better.

In our recently released report, Striking a (Local) Grand Bargainthe National Resource Network, NYU Wagner, and the Urban Institute illustrate that while cities can benefit from relationships with local anchors – colleges, universities, and hospitals – the full potential of these partnerships has not been realized because of mistrust, half-starts and half-realized results.

But cities and anchor institutions need each other in order to thrive. Our study found that:

  • Increasingly, anchor institutions are driving economic progress;
  • Partnership efforts are growing in number;
  • Small and struggling cities often have the most to gain; and
  • Leaders must speak the same language.

Each finding represents the hard work and core lessons from those on the ground across the country. Every day mayors, university presidents, and hospital CEOs are navigating issues big and small – sometimes together, other times in their own institutional silos. Working together makes sense for the short-term success of these institutions and the long-term prosperity of their cities.

We assessed twelve cities. Of those, anchor institutions were among the top three – if not the top – employer in eleven. It is more than the job numbers that represent reason for hope for stronger city -anchor institution relations. Eleven of the cities assessed said their relationships had improved over the last decade, with three noting great improvements.

Even smaller market cities like Wilkes-Barre, PA; Waco, TX; and Kansas City, KS; are demonstrating the value of anchor institutions. In fact, the economic impacts in these cities have been felt most immediately as acute economic distress was a prime impetus for closer collaboration.

Even if the pieces are there – a city government interested in building for the future and anchor institutions looking at the community as a whole – leadership that is willing to speak the same language and find a way to collaborate is key. On day one, Wilkes-Barre’s mayor met with the two colleges located in his city, for example. That initial gesture helped lay the groundwork for the ongoing transformation of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown, which has been powered by the relationships between the City and those schools. Of course leadership is just one piece of an effective anchor strategy and our report outlines an array of other steps and approaches that can be employed to advance local efforts.

From the days when being located near a navigable body of water was key to a city’s success, to the era of strong corporate ties to urban centers, to cities today that now look to strong anchor institutions with an eye toward the future, what it takes to be a successful city has shifted as the world around us has changed. A new approach, a new grand bargain with anchor institutions based on shared interests is the path forward for American cities in the 21st century.

Read Richard Florida’s take on our report and this important topic here