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Penn State, State College borough host conference on town-gown relations

Written by Min Xian/WPSU | May 21, 2019 5:19 AM
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Downtown State College (Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU)

(State College) -- In college towns, the large student population can complicate relations between universities and local communities. This week, the 2019 International Town and Gown Association Conference is at Penn State talking about how the two can coexist.

The conference is hosted by Penn State and the Borough of State College and features topics like Greek life reform, public safety and diversity.

One of the sessions on Monday focused on the unofficial drinking holiday at Penn State, known as State Patty's Day.

At its peak in 2011, the weekend resulted in more than 600 police calls and nearly 400 arrests and citations. State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said it's the "single most difficult day for the community."

To fight back, the university, the municipal government, police and EMS, student organizations and local businesses formed a task force, with the goal of making the event as unattractive as possible, especially for people from out of town.

After a few attempts at creating counter events that were unsuccessful, the borough and the university decided to pay local businesses not to sell alcohol.

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FILE PHOTO: Old Main on the Penn State main campus in State College. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Damon Sims, the university's vice president for student affairs, said that was a radical move at the time, and it worked.

"People came from out of town and they found they couldn't bar hop. It wasn't what they thought they were coming to and some of them had come a long way," Sims said.  "They were disappointed and they decided, I think, that they were not coming back the next year. So, the next year, we saw the numbers dropped off precipitously, in terms of arrests, citations [and] ER transports."

The task force also convinced the state liquor control board to close local liquor stores and fraternities not to host parties.

Sims said the progress was significant, but he doesn't think eliminating drinking altogether is possible.

"For me, success is improvement. And we have seen dramatic improvement in the community," he said.

Dawn Maguire, a resident of the Holmes-Foster Neighborhood in State College, said State Patty's is changing in response.

"In the last few years, what I've noticed in Holmes-Foster is, it's morphing into the rental houses within the neighborhoods more and more," Maguire said.

State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine agreed.

"Some of the most egregious problems that we've always had with State Patty's Day have been in our neighborhoods and not nearly as much downtown," Fountaine said. He said a continuing focus is to emphasize community policing.

Fountaine also spoke about other aspects of "studentification" in the community. He said, in a healthy town-gown relationship, patience and partnership are key.

The conference will continue through Wednesday.

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