When Trenton politicians proposed splitting off Rutgers University's Camden campus and subsuming it into Rowan University, panicked opponents argued against the change by slapping the Glassboro institution with insults like, "inferior," "unknown outside New Jersey," and "clown college."

Approximately seven months and a hard-fought compromise later, lawmakers replaced the merger plan with a mandate for Rutgers and Rowan to formally collaborate in the health sciences; designated Rowan as an official state research university and bequeathed it with the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, which they carved out of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ).

A few months after, fresh off the establishment of another medical school, in Camden, Rowan also received $117 million from the passage of a state bond act to fund the construction of two buildings on its main campus – one for its business school and a second for the school of engineering. 

Flush with cash, newly established PhD programs and the expectation of a raised profile, the school once called Glassboro State (or, snickeringly, "Glass-o-beer State") is positioning itself to live up to the shinier reputation administrators promise their new riches will bring them in the coming decades.

Forecasting a stronger ability to recruit lauded faculty and more prestigious grants, a doubling of enrollment to 25,000 and a tripling of endowment within the next decade, the university is spending an additional $10 million-plus to erect a student health center on campus and refurbish its original hall and its team house. It's also four years into helping to spearhead the largest municipal construction project in New Jersey just beyond its borders.

 

A space for students and residents

This novel $300 million project is called Rowan Boulevard, and it's doing more than creating a walkable college town from the ground up and anchoring a top-down transformation of downtown Glassboro; It's said to be improving the relationship between school and boro and giving the former teacher's college a more prominent role in the life of Gloucester County.

"The fact that Glassboro has already made significant progress in building out Rowan Boulevard and the rest of the downtown retail corridor means that the borough will grow in step with the university. Keeping pace with Rowan's extraordinary growth will serve the residents of Glassboro and the entire region by providing permanent job opportunities and creating a destination for dining, shopping and recreation with a walkable, livable, workable downtown," said Heather Simmons, Gloucester County freeholder and spokesperson for the boro.

By some accounts, relations were strained between the school and the boro before they partnered on Rowan Boulevard, which is a new pedestrian-friendly road that connects the campus to the rest of downtown.

"Think of (the former relationship) as the border with Mexico but more tenuous," said Tom Fore of Sora Development out of Maryland, who designed, built and backed most of the 26-acre development. "Every parcel Rowan buys removes it from the tax rolls of the city and the city in turn has to deal with all the students and complaints from neighbors. But that trend's been changing. We created a real partnership."

The so-called "Town and Gown" project entails a graduate college building with contemporary retail on the ground floor, an honors dorm also with retail, student apartments, a 1200-car parking garage, and a Barnes & Noble Collegiate Superstore, which is already a top-ten performer for the collegiate arm of the bookselling chain. To keep the properties on the tax rolls, Rowan leases its classroom and living space instead of owning it.

 The residential buildings are expected to add density and the graduate college will bring in adults. To attract entertainment-seekers from Philadelphia and South Jersey and to make the local community feel welcome, an ice skating rink will go on the site of the new Town Square urban green space this winter, to be replaced by large-scale concerts and festivals this summer. The pinnacle of the project is the 129-room Courtyard Marriott complete with a conference center and liquor license opening in September.

The hotel has attracted more business to Glassboro in the last six months than the town has seen in the last two years. In total, Rowan Boulevard will support 65 retail establishments – including a burger joint owned by the team behind Philadelphia's perennially popular The Pub & Kitchen.

"We understand fully that small business ... is the backbone of Glassboro's economic engine," said Council President Tony Fiola in a statement.

 

Neighborhood transformation

The impact doesn't stop at the end of Rowan Boulevard. A block away begins the nascent arts and entertainment district where the possible conversion of an old movie theater into a performing-arts center will, boosters hope, anchor a street vibrant with galleries and cultural spaces.

Longtime Glassboro business man Al Bartolomeo and his wife were the first to relocate there after the boro bought them out of their former location on the current Rowan Boulevard site and asked them to rebuild their successful dance studio and ice cream shop in the forthcoming A & E district. Bartolomeo said although foot traffic remains almost non-existent, he expects a more uptempo future.

"It's like a ghost town down there," he said. "As far as breeding new patronage from the new project, that's not happening. (But) we understand that's going to take some time."

Beyond that, in a town hollowed out by the departure of the glass industry and the arrival of nearby malls and suburban shopping centers, much more development is planned, both on and off Rowan Boulevard, bringing the total redevelopment area to 81 acres.

Plans include an under-construction residential neighborhood with a commercial corridor, senior housing, market-rate housing above Rowan Boulevard stores, a new library, a health-care facility, a sports and rec center, a pedestrian promenade featuring outdoor restaurant seating, a food district with an open-air market as its centerpiece, myriad nightclubs and taverns, and a movie theater.

Situated in the heart of one of the state's fastest growing counties and as the proposed terminus for a state-recommended light-rail to Camden, Glassboro is aiming to become one of South Jersey's most alluring destinations, attracting an anticipated 125 retail businesses generating an annual $225 million. Not to mention the 400 temporary and 1000 permanent jobs the projects will create, in addition to the new faculty and staff Rowan will be hiring.

Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan, said, "Every time you create a job there is a multiplier effect. More employees need more haircuts, entertainment, and all kinds of services. I'm absolutely convinced the impact of this thing is going to be absolutely monumental."