Friday, April 11, 2014

The Reading Terminal Market: A model for small colleges (and a great place to eat in Philly)

I was in Philadelphia last week for the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.  One of the things I enjoy most when I am visiting new cities is eating good food, particularly "local" fare in local spaces.  My hotel (and the convention center where the conference was held) happened to be right next door to Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, which many consider to be one of the finest food markets in the U.S.  In addition to being really interesting, the story of the market, including its struggles through the 70s and subsequent renewal in the late 80s, provides important lessons for higher education--especially small colleges.

The market has nearly 80 independently-owned small businesses, representing a wide diversity of products and services.  The brochure I picked up in the hotel lobby boasts that the market "has something for everyone," and this isn't untrue.  As I walked through the market nearly each day of my 8 day trip I saw bakeries, coffee shops, ice creameries, a flower shop, craft stands, meat counters, seafood markets, produce stands, and sit-down restaurants (if you're planning on visiting Philly, my personal favorites were the Down Home Diner, Bassetts Ice Cream, and Profi's Creperie).  Based on this description, it would be fair to wonder how the Market is different from a run-of-the-mill mall.  And, this is the lesson for small colleges.

One of the challenges for any institution of higher education is balancing the tension between identity and universality.  If an institution is too parochial, it runs the risk of attracting too few students and too little attention from other important stakeholders (e.g. key community & government leaders, funding sources, researchers), similar to the fate of a highly specialized boutique that can't manage to get off the ground.  Alternatively, if an institution becomes too broad or too general, it loses its identity and becomes unremarkable and run-of-the-mill, like a shopping mall.  The key for a small college is achieving balance between these two extremes--enough diversity to attract a good group of students and faculty members, but enough identity that it can carve out a space and home on the higher education landscape.

The Reading Terminal Market is a great model of this balance.  Like I mentioned above, the promotional brochure produced by the non-profit organization that manages the Market, touts that it "has something for everyone." While I understand the appeal for its brochure to make these kinds of claims, I'm not sure that the Market really offers something for everyone, like a typical mall might.  In fact, what makes the Market such a great model for small colleges is that they have made some very strategic decisions about the constraints they would place on themselves and their vendors.  And, it is these constraints, tempered by a small degree of diversity among the types of vendors they invite to house the space, that bring the Market the identity and vibrancy that allow it to thrive.

1.  Connection to history and values.  First, the the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority (the non-profit that runs the Market) has worked to ensure that the story and history of the Market have been preserved and represented in today's Market.  When the Market was re-built in the early 1990s, the Authority negotiated a preservation agreement that made sure that the refurbished Market would adhere to historic standards and maintain its historical integrity.  Those simple architectural decisions and constraints give the Market personality, voice, and signature that link it to its past and leave you feeling a bit like you've walked back into history when you walk through the market.  This creates an experience that visitors enjoy and remember--very different than walking into a shopping mall.

2.  Connection to the local community through signature services & speciality products.  When the Market underwent its initial reconstruction the Reading Railroad Company (who operated the Market until trains stopped coming into the terminal) recruited specific vendors who would tie the Market to the unique culture and history of both the city of Philadelphia, as well as the state of Pennsylvania more broadly.  This included a group of Amish merchants from Lancaster County.  They also made sure that Bassett's Ice Cream, who have been in operation at the Market since it opened in 1892, would remain in their original location.  Inclusion of these products and services diversified the Market's offerings, while grounding the Market in a local place and community.

3.  A personal, neighborhood feel.  Though I was an outsider at the Market, I felt like a local and felt like I had stumbled across something that only locals know about (which is actually not true of the Market at all).  The small vendor spaces, counter top dining, friendly merchants, and mixing of various types and demographics of people make the space feel like neighborhoods and communities should feel.  I was comfortable there, felt attended to by the merchants, and wanted to go back day after day.

Small colleges could learn a great deal from the Market.  Just as small businesses often feel the gravitational pull to become like the big-box stores around them, there is a tendency for small colleges to try to be everything to everyone.  The logic seems to be that the more we offer and provide, the more students we'll have, and the better off we'll be.  But, the reality is that identity, mission, and place are just as important has providing access to a broad range of academic programs and services.  The Reading Terminal Market has grown and innovated, but it has tempered this process by maintaining ties to its history and mission, grounding its work in the local community, and ensuring that it provides an experience that feels personal and supportive.  Likewise, there is a need for small colleges to pursue strategic and constrained growth and innovation by remembering the institutional stories and values that are at the core of their mission, providing a small set of signature programs that are ideally linked to the values and economy of the local community, and that leverage one of the greatest strengths of small colleges, which is their ability to foster a neighborhood or community of diverse, yet like-minded learners.

No comments: