Until the early 21st century the direct financial exchange between Colgate University and adjacent Hamilton, NY was limited. But in 2000, in a move since mimicked by universities across the country, Colgate created a branch listed as a for-profit LLC called the Hamilton Initiative and bought a number of properties in the downtown core. Since that time, the volume of Hamilton Initiative property has continued to grow; today, of the three-block town center, they own 10 functioning properties and three undeveloped plots, as well as leasing one additional property for Colgate use.
“Before the Hamilton Initiative was formed, many buildings in the downtown area were boarded up, and the facades were not maintained,” Associate Vice President for Community Affairs & Auxiliary Services Joanne Borfitz said. “When the Initiative purchased a number of buildings, one of the first things we did was to renovate the buildings we owned, which dramatically improved their appearance.”
Colgate modeled its renovations on photographs of historical Hamilton before the building facades had begun to fall into disrepair. Around the same time that the Hamilton Initiative was formed, Hamilton’s non-profit Partnership for Community Development (PCD) offered a facade improvement program initially funded by the university; many non-Hamilton Initiative landlords took advantage of this opportunity to re-vamp the appearance of their own buildings.
Currently, Hamilton Initiative-owned properties house SWANK, Sheridona Hair Salon, Alice Virden-Speer Photography, Nichols & Beal Restaurant, Maxwell’s Chocolates, MidYork Weekly Newspaper, Colgate Development Offices, Main Moon Chinese Restaurant, Hamilton Village Real Estate, Colgate Bookstore, Peppermill, Hamilton Massage Therapy, Monika Burczyk’s Art Therapy Studio, Jim Goldstein, Thought into Action, Youth Policy Institute, Jim Leach, Curtain Call, Steph’s Boutique, the Palace Theater, the Colgate Inn and a number of apartments; they also include three undeveloped properties and one property in transition.
Despite the polished appearance of Hamilton that accompanied these changes, Colgate’s decision to buy out a large portion of the town initially sparked resistance from many residents.
“We were concerned, as Colgate purchased buildings downtown, that their control over hours, hiring and inventory would be too great. But I’ve never heard of any undue influence,” Evergreen Galleries owner Lauri Shoemaker said.
“They were worried that Colgate was taking over the village, I guess,” Village Mayor Margaret Miller said. “People who had lived here for a long time were reluctant for change … [But] it’s a win, I think, for the community. I’m not sure any individual could have put so much investment into it.”
Individual business owners are not unanimous on this front, however. Along with the long list of Hamilton Initiative-owned properties, the university itself owns some businesses directly, including the Colgate Bookstore, the Barge Canal Coffee Company and the Hamilton Movie Theater.
“The Palace Theater, the Colgate Bookstore and the Barge Canal all created competition at the time, and a lot of things went out of business because of it,” Hamilton business and real-estate owner Leroy Hodge said. “A lot of these [Colgate-run] places didn’t have to make money the way independent businessmen did. Now they keep expanding more and more, to the point where they own all of the prime downtown properties.”
To some extent, Colgate’s role influences tenants of Hamilton Initiative properties as well.
“Because the initiative is focused on enhancing the economic viability of the community, in the past we have worked very closely with tenants who may need assistance to continue contributing to the business community,” Borfitz said.
“I’m happy that [Colgate is] investing in the buildings so that we don’t look like Earlville,” New York Pizzeria co-owner Louann Hance said. “The businesses that they have don’t have to make money though, so it makes it that much harder for the businesses that do have to make money … I get the impression that people who rent from Colgate don’t have to have a profitable business, as long as it is an interesting business.”
The New York Pizzeria has been open since 1977. The business owns its own lot, but it is one of the few remaining businesses in Hamilton that does.
“When Colgate bought the bookstore downtown, they told the locals that they wouldn’t be in competition with everyone,” Hance said. “But then they started selling school supplies. P.M. Jones, which was around the corner for like 50 years, had to close.”
Now, the bookstore sells a wide variety of merchandise, including jewelry and Bed Bath & Beyond products.
Currently, though Colgate’s ability to make capital investments in the town dramatically influences the local business dynamic, the Hamilton Initiative pays the same taxes as the rest of the private sector. According to some sources, the Initiative has allowed the community to thrive in unprecedented ways, drawing many visitors from neighboring areas.
“I do think Hamilton is becoming a destination for shoppers and diners, and for people attending shows at the Palace Theater and the Hamilton Movie Theater,” Borfitz said. “Patti Von Mecho does a zip-code analysis of people that attend on-stage performances at the palace theater, and a high percentage of
attendees are from outside of Hamilton.”
In addition to their commercial popularity, some of the Colgate-run businesses are able to do a large amount of free programming to the benefit of the greater Hamilton community.
However, other sources pointed to the high turnover rate of Hamilton businesses, and to the fact that most businesses in town are heavily dependent on students, most closing over Colgate breaks. In addition, many of the independent landlords and business owners now based in the downtown core live away from Hamilton.
If one thing is certain, Colgate has seen a return on its involved investment in the town of Hamilton.
“I think Colgate University has been a leader in investing in their community and has realized how important this is for the recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff.”
Contact Rebekah Ward