Local government officials look to strengthen college-community relations

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For most politically minded college students at Marist College, the presidential race may appear to be the most pressing upcoming election, but amid all the Hillary-Benghazi-hearing and Trump-on-SNL media coverage, they might have missed an even more consequential political race.

Local elections for key offices in the Dutchess County and Poughkeepsie governments took place on Nov. 3, ending months of hectic, door-to-door campaigning for hundreds of candidates throughout the county. In one of the most hotly contested races, Marc Molinaro, the incumbent republican county executive, won re-election with more than 63 percent of the vote, beating out Democratic challenger Diane Jablonski.

Republican Rob Rolison was elected mayor of the City of Poughkeepsie, defeating Democrat Randy Johnson by more than 1000 votes. Seats on the seven-member Poughkeepsie Town Board, the eight-member Common Council of Poughkeepsie and the 25-member county legislative body were also up for grabs, among other positions.

These officials indubitably affect the lives of the thousands of constituents within their districts, but often overlooked is the relationship between these officials and local college students.

With five colleges in Dutchess County, including Marist, Vassar College, The Culinary Institute of America, Bard College and Dutchess County Community College, they inevitably contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy and bring in students from around the country and the world. Three of the schools – Marist, Vassar and DCCC – are in Poughkeepsie.

“The colleges in this county are our engines of opportunity and engines of innovation with thousands of students coming to this county every year,” said Molinaro, who is heading into his second term as the head of the executive branch of Dutchess County. “There is a great deal of energy, innovation and thought that provide us with the opportunity to diversify our workforce and welcome new young people to our community.”

Todd Tancredi, the re-elected Poughkeepsie Town Supervisor, also played up the importance of local colleges in the greater Hudson Valley community, specifically calling out his alma mater.

“Marist is a big part of our community,” he said. “I think the college provides a great economic benefit to the town of Poughkeepsie as well as to the Hudson Valley as a whole, especially the way Marist has progressed in terms of its representation and the job President Murray has done. Overall it’s in a very solid position.”

As town supervisor, Tancredi presides over all town board meetings, although he has no special voting or vetoing powers. Under his supervision and along with the mayor, the town board has a direct influence on day-to-day college-community relations. But Tancredi acknowledges that “Marist doesn’t come up often [in our board meetings].”

“[Marist] may come up because of some building or construction on campus or in the community,” he continued. “Once or twice a year there may be something that comes up, but we’re here to solve problems. If there were no problems, no issues, no need for a third party to decide an issue, they wouldn’t need us.”

The Route 9 underpass, which was completed in 2011 to create easier foot access for students from the Marist campus to the other side of the busy road, is one project that required intense cooperation between Marist and the town board. The Nuisance Party Law, enacted last year to prevent off-campus college parties in the town of Poughkeepsie from getting out of control or disturbing local residents, is another example.

Tancredi and Molinaro say that the continued economic development of the county is the best way to improve the relationship between college students and local residents.

“We have been very aggressive in promoting the revitalization of the city of Poughkeepsie, including the reactivation of the waterfront and development throughout the city,” Molinaro said.

Molinaro cited the implementation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Start-Up NY initiative, which allows local businesses to operate tax-free for a decade on or near college campuses, as a breakthrough in college-community relations. He also hopes his plans to privatize operations at the Dutchess County Airport will bring in more revenue for the county and expand educational opportunities to students interested in aviation.

He also plans to “continue and likely expand” on legislation aimed at preventing sexual assault on college campuses following New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s presentation of the state’s Enough is Enough law at Marist last month.

Molinaro says that he communicates with the Marist administration about this bill and other business development plans on a “weekly basis depending on what we’re talking about.”

Despite efforts to improve college-community relations, some Marist students still feel detached from what’s going on around them. Although there are many students who participate in community service events through Campus Ministry or Habitat for Humanity and benefit from Marist’s relationship IBM, the FDR Library and the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council, there is always room for improvement.

“There is an awareness of what’s going on in the surrounding community, but it could always be broader and deeper,” said Greg Cannon, Chief Public Affairs Officer at Marist. “I think there’s room for more outlets and relationships.”

Molinaro says it is important to note that this gap between Marist students and the local community is “not entirely unique” to Marist. Sometimes, he says, many students “who live on campus become isolated because that’s the experience they want.”

“We don’t have an immediate strategy [to fix this], but we’re open to one,” Molinaro admitted. “I would say one of the ways we can do this is to show up on campus more often. If the college community is open to it, we are too.”

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