Special Reports

Town, gown can find ideal balance

Mark Hlavacik talks at the beginning of a small group discussion during a community forum on excessive drinking Tuesday, March 23, 2010, at the State College Municipal Building. Hlavacik was moderating the small group session. CDT/Christopher Weddle
Mark Hlavacik talks at the beginning of a small group discussion during a community forum on excessive drinking Tuesday, March 23, 2010, at the State College Municipal Building. Hlavacik was moderating the small group session. CDT/Christopher Weddle

On March 23 I participated with almost 100 others in an open and honest discussion of the problems and solutions concerning effects of excessive drinking in State College.

What I experienced that evening has made me realize again how much of a balancing act it sometimes is to live, work and study in a college town.

The majority of the year we, the full-time residents, both welcome the students and are irritated by some of them. They become our shining stars when they participate in community service and entertain us on the playing field or the concert hall, or irritate us by being annoying neighbors who jaywalk, disregard laws and have excessively loud parties.

We know we need them to make our town thrive, but breathe a little easier and enjoy time in “our” town when they return home, either for short breaks or to begin their lives following graduation.

Their energy and vitality are what makes our town exciting. I know how much I enjoy getting to know the young people who choose Penn State as the place they want to study. The problems we see are certainly not with the majority of students and their friends who spend time in our town, but with a minority of others who seemingly could care less about how their behaviors affect those around them.

Attending the forum at the State College Municipal Building was a fabulous combination of town and gown: educators, business owners, clerical workers, young parents, students, retirees, law enforcement professionals and civil servants. We came together, concerned and willing to try and bring to the table ideas that may help us to make our town an even better place than it is now.

We faced head on the problem at hand and very openly shared stories, insights and opinions about the attitude of excessive drinking and what could be done to slow down the assault on State College that we experience time after time.

It is a daunting problem. We know the effects of excessive drinking when we go to brunch on Sundays after a home football game and the stench in the stairwell of the parking garage assails us, when seemingly every year a young person falls from a balcony and is severely injured or killed, or our homes and yards become public dumping grounds for beer cans and bodily fluids.

For years the attitude by many of us townies was to shrug off the offending behaviors and turn a blind eye because traditionally college towns are party towns and there just is nothing that can be done. That attitude, hopefully as a result of meetings like this, is on the way out in State College.

One of the highlights of the evening was hearing the voices of the students who chose to attend the forum. These young people represent the best of young citizens who respect not only themselves but also their adoptive town. They had good solid ideas on how to solve the problem of excessive drinking that we all continually face.

The students who spoke up were riveting to listen to and, somewhat surprisingly to me, were suggesting many of the same solutions offered by the citizens who make State College their home. These students were funny and smart and willing to jump in to be part of the solution. I believe one or two of them will be amazing community leaders in the future.

The decisions the participants of the forum reached and the goals we are going to attempt to achieve range from fighting to change laws and increase outdated penalties to developing activities of community inclusion with closer social interactions between students and residents.

It will be a process that will take time. The “us against them” attitude must begin to change for our goals to be met.

Meeting and interacting with the people who attended the forum in March has given me hope that we can continue to improve State College and make it a safer and smarter place to live. The community forums bringing town and gown together must continue.

We are the stewards of our little part of Happy Valley.

To make it either a desirable and enjoyable home away from home for thousands of incoming students or the community where we want to raise our families in safety and retire to enjoy the benefits of this unique university town will certainly take more than 100 people.

Consider joining the community task force in the future because we need your voice and your help.

Here are some recommendations that came out of the Community Conversation. Create a student mentoring program

Hold block parties in neighborhoods at the start of the semester

Increase fines for alcohol violations

Offer a life skills course for freshmen

Diane Twomley, a 32-year resident of Centre County, lives in Ferguson Township and is an employee of the State College Area School District. To join the community task force, contact Lou Ann Evans, co-chairwoman of the Public Issues Forum of Centre County, at louann evans@hotmail.com.