College thrives

Troy falls

Gift: Residents of the ailing N.Y. town look enviously at the $360 million anonymously donated to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

March 24, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

TROY, N.Y. - Amanda Vandenburgh has a suggestion for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the school here that recently received $360 million from an anonymous donor: Share the wealth.

Vandenburgh, 18, has lived in Troy all her life and can't wait to leave. She says the schools are terrible, the roads have potholes the size of picnic tables, and she once saw a man stabbed to death in broad daylight outside her front door.

She wants Rensselaer Polytechnic - known as RPI - to remember folks like her, who can't afford to go to college, when they start spending the largest gift to any university in the nation and an amount equal to more than half of the school's $660 million endowment.

Many people here agree with Vandenburgh. Soon after the donation was announced, Rensselaer County Legislator Robert Mirch said the university should give 1 percent of the money to the city, which not long ago teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. His suggestion seems to have galvanized Troy even more than the gift itself. Everybody is talking about it. About half the city supports the 1 percent suggestion, and the other half blushes just thinking about it.

"I think that sounds like your long-lost relative calling up when you won the lottery," says the town's mayor, Mark P. Pattison. He believes that the university's good fortune is the city's good fortune and hopes the two will rise together to national prominence.

Indeed, he says, the metamorphosis has already begun: "People from almost all over the world are hearing about Troy these days."

Others in the town, the people who attend the schools and work in the coffee shops and worry about their safety, wouldn't mind seeing more money pumped into the city, which has a population of almost 50,000 and an operating budget of about $51 million. For them, RPI's good fortune seems only to highlight Troy's struggles.

While the 1 percent debate rages in the city, RPI officials say the discussion is moot. The anonymous donor did not give the money to Troy, they point out, but to the school, and they have to respect the donor's wishes.

They say the money will be used to hire more professors and create new programs in biotechnology and information technology at the 6,200-student school, which has an annual operating budget of $263 million. They also want to double research and graduate students and remake the school into a first-class institution. It is ranked 49th in the nation for undergraduate education by U.S. News and World Report and 17th for undergraduate engineering.

Bruce Adams, a spokesman for RPI, says the $360 million will transform the city, even without direct handouts.

Everyone agrees that Troy needs help. There are too many abandoned storefronts in the city, too many drugs changing hands in the picturesque back alleys. After a recent snowfall, the streets remained treacherous for days because the city budget lacked money for emergency snow removal.

Even in downtown Troy - with its plethora of historic buildings left over from the city's heyday during the Industrial Revolution - trash litters the streets. Many of the stores have a down-at-the-heels look, with peeling paint or damaged signs, and some streets have a not-so-clean smell akin to the subway stations of New York City some 150 miles to the south.

Pattison, one of the city's biggest boosters, admits it needs help. "When people come to Troy," he says, "they get a bad impression."

Nevertheless, the city has improved since Pattison took office six years ago. At that time, Troy was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Wall Street Journal had declared it the most fiscally distressed city in the nation. Now it has a balanced budget, the arts community has grown in recent years, it is home to some 60 or 70 technology companies, and there are plans to build a greenway along the Hudson River.

The Rensselaer County Historical Society, located in a historic building in downtown Troy, is expanding and hopes to use Troy's history to draw tourists. Among other things, the city has the grave of Samuel Wilson - better known as Uncle Sam - and during the 19th century had a reputation for being the world's leading producer of detachable collars. The city has a smorgasbord of architectural styles from that era.

"The architecture is here; the beauty is here," says Alane Hohenberg, in charge of fund raising at the historical society. "The money has been missing."

While local leaders talk excitedly about Troy's "renaissance," others doubt that RPI will be able to save the city that surrounds it.

"I don't even want to say I live in Troy," says Carlo Zoleo, the 86-year-old owner of a used furniture store called Everything Must Go. The only people walking into his shop, he says, are reporters and photographers wanting to talk about RPI.

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