Comparing and contrasting a university’s anchor institution role in three host cities: Strategies and conditions for greatest contribution and impact

Joanne Curry
Simon Fraser University

Simon Fraser University (SFU) is a Canadian research university with three integrated campuses, eight faculties, and over 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university serves as an anchor institution in three of the largest municipalities in British Columbia, Canada. Each campus and each city have distinct histories, characteristics, and organizational cultures. As a result, the approaches taken by SFU to support economic development has varied. Practices and results in creating innovation districts, supporting the branding and reputation of the city, cooperating on attracting companies, mobilizing research, and supporting the cities in a variety of ways will be compared and contrasted. Insights on strategies and conditions for greatest contribution and impact will be discussed.

In Burnaby, our 53-year old campus has a spectacular but isolated location on top of a mountain rising 370-meters above sea level. The campus was created to be close to a growing population but separate from community as was the practice of the times. In the early years the university had a sometimes strained relationship with the municipality in overcoming transactional issues over land and governance. The municipality, one of the best financially managed in Canada, subcontracts its economic development opportunities to a board of trade organization. Its involvement with the University has been more of a “silent partner”, to quote a recent mayor, with a noted exception where the City supported the creation of a sustainable residential community on the mountaintop which will house over 9,000 residents when fully built-out. The City of Burnaby has had great success in attracting and growing companies due to its proximity to Vancouver and supply of industrial lands and business parks. In recent years, the university and municipality are making more concerted efforts to strength links and connections, particularly to apply research and expertise to help in tackling housing and homelessness and to address the talent shortages of local organizations.

In Vancouver, our 30-year old campus, assumed an anchor institutional role from its inception. The campus began in temporary quarters to help rejuvenate an economically challenged neighbourhood which remains as Canada’s poorest postal code. SFU Vancouver is referred to as the intellectual heart of downtown Vancouver and is the largest university campus in the downtown core with nine building locations. SFU Vancouver includes a graduate business school, a contemporary arts school, a thriving set of continuing studies, along with programs in urban studies, international studies, public policy, and gerontology. A number of leading community engagement programs provide an interface for the city and the community including a globally leading centre for dialogue, art galleries, social innovation, and a contemporary arts cultural unit. Activities with the municipality have been decentralized and organic, mainly focusing on the relationship and expertise of individual faculty and staff. The exception has been the institution’s role in helping to rejuvenate buildings and neighbourhoods with its real estate acquisitions and programs to support social innovation.

The SFU Surrey campus is SFU’s youngest campus and, like SFU Vancouver, assumed an anchor institutional role from its inception in Surrey’s city centre 16 years ago. The university was the initial tenant in a government-initiated mixed-use complex consisting of a retail mall, office tower. The site of the development was a neighbourhood challenged by crime and characterized by declining housing stock and retail outlets. The public and economic confidence gained from the University’s presence and the declared provincial investment catalyzed over 24 residential towers, a fully occupied office tower, and resuscitated retail shopping centre in the new city centre precinct. Today, the university remains a key component in a comprehensive city centre redevelopment that includes a new city hall and civic library. The city-university partnership has thrived after a period of the City gaining familiarity and understanding of the benefits of a research university in economic development and community building and the university learning more about the needs of the community. The partnership has become a platform for economic development. Collaborations have ranged from hiring graduate students to undertaking applied research, to city-sponsored research chairs in sustainable energy and youth mental health, to creating the district of Innovation Boulevard to support med-tech companies and improved health for residences.

After comparing and contrasting the university’s approach and engagement with the three municipalities, I will reflect on the successes and failures of different anchor institution strategies and initiatives in the three very different cities. Where has the university had the greatest contribution and impact? My observations will draw on a 25-year career with the university that began in university-industry liaison and transitioned to developing a new campus and municipal relationships. I will also utilize the results of my University of Bath doctorate thesis contrasting two of the university-city relationships. The presentation will discuss future implications for a regional approach to economic development.