Cumberland Times-News

October 16, 2013

FSU neighborhood study reveals stark contrasts in town

Michael A. Sawyers
Cumberland Times-News

— FROSTBURG — Kathleen Powell, a resident of Frostburg for 26 years and an associate professor in the department of social work at Frostburg State University thought she knew the Mountain City.

Then she began working on her doctorate, peering for a year into the interactions among off-campus students and year-round residents in the swath of neighborhoods that bump up against the campus.

Powell, for the first time, walked the sidewalks at 1 a.m. on a Saturday in the traditional party neighborhoods. She found herself interviewing students in their rental quarters or year-round residents at their kitchen tables.

Powell stopped people on the street and asked for their thoughts. Some talked. Some didn’t.

“I saw neighborhoods in a new light. I learned things about this place I didn’t know,” Powell said Wednesday.

On Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Powell will present her findings to the Frostburg mayor and council immediately before that body’s 7 p.m. public meeting at the Frostburg Community Center.

Powell’s year-long study began in the autumn of 2011 and was a part of the doctorate in social work she earned this past spring from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“There had been a convergence of problems in the neighborhoods next to campus,” Powell said. “There is a high residential density there.”

Powell’s study area was bounded by the campus border, as well as Mechanic, Spring and Broadway streets.

Powell cited trash and parking problems along with noise and deteriorating homes.

“Plus the recent incidents of violence,” she said, referring to a fatal shooting, fatal stabbing — each student-on-student — and the beating of a local resident who remains disabled.

“Our community has a low crime rate, so these things stood out,” Powell said.

“My first late-night observation was really striking. I live on the West Side, two and a half blocks from the western edge of the study zone. My neighborhood was quiet and dark. Everybody was sleeping.

“In the study zone, the houses were lit up, groups of young people were on the sidewalks with many visibly intoxicated and being held upright by others. Other people were yelling at the top of their lungs.

“A police car blocked a side street and a young person was bent over the car and in handcuffs.”

Powell said the contrast between the two neighborhoods was stark — different worlds.

Powell interviewed off-campus students, year-round residents, landlords and officials from the city and the university.

Interestingly, she found that the complaints were not always of the town vs. gown nature.

“Year-round residents had as many complaints about other year-round residents as about students,” Powell said. “Some even expressed a tolerance toward the party behavior.”

Powell found students laying down roots in Frostburg, such as one female student who stayed and worked during the summers and dated a local man.

Another student bought the home in which she lives, rents portions of it to other students and takes pride in keeping the residence in good condition.

Students sing for local church choirs, take part in cultural events not on campus and otherwise mesh positively into the city’s daily machinations.

Some graduates stay to be among same-age peers and attempt to make Frostburg their permanent home, according to Powell.

Powell recommends these actions:

• Post results of rental housing inspections online.

• Develop an online rating system for rental properties.

• FSU should name a designated neighborhood liaison.

• Revitalize the Town-Gown Committee for transparent decision making.

• Have a FSU/city team participate in the International Town & Gown Association.

• Place neighborhood representatives on the city’s Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and City Council.

• Diversify the local economy and diminish reliance on the university.

• Attract more families to the campus-adjacent neighborhoods.

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.