Developers are targeting college alumni in new communities

Comfort level, affinity to universities are prime subdivision selling points

August 01, 2004|By Janet Frankston | Janet Frankston,COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - Shortly after college students become alumni, their mailboxes start to overflow. Give to the annual fund-raising campaign. Sign up for a credit card with the university logo. Attend the reunion.

And now: Live among fellow alumni.

Private developers building university-themed subdivisions are appealing to alumni looking to reconnect to the glory days of college or to be close to the intellectual stimulation of courses and lectures. Some are geared to baby boomers or retirees and have age restrictions.

Golfing communities aimed at graduates of Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia are under construction, as is a condominium project near the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium in Athens. These projects have created alliances with alumni or athletic associations by promising cash and a small percentages of sales.

At the Georgia Tech Club, selling houses with a college connection doesn't seem like hard work to Michael Hickman. Part of the pitch by the fourth-generation Tech alumnus sometimes involves recalling the Heisman Trophy that got away during the early 1940s and the 1976 football game in which Tech beat Notre Dame without throwing a single pass.

"I think there's a certain comfort level that you have with your neighbors" when everyone is connected to the same college, said the 37-year-old, who majored in civil engineering. Sitting next to the construction trailer is his gold Range Rover adorned with a Georgia Tech license plate stamped with 1989, his graduation year.

But Tech connections aren't required for those who buy one of the $800,000-plus homes. As in most of the university-linked developments around the country, residents might include the parents of students and people without any affiliation at all. In those geared to older adults, buyers have been retired faculty members and the retired parents of faculty.

No matter who lives there, such communities reflect on the universities associated with them, said Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. A school needs to find the right development partner and make sure the project strikes the appropriate tone, he said.

"It's no different than a university putting their logo on merchandise," Bernhardt said. "You don't want to have a schlocky development where people are going to blame the university."

`Great mechanism'

Done well, they have the potential to promote fund raising and goodwill.

"It's a great mechanism for a university to put together a group of people whose common affinity is the university itself," Bernhardt said.

Universities have been in the dorm-building business for ages, but these new enterprises give colleges opportunities to offer housing and services to alumni.

Leon Pastalan, director of the National Center on Housing and Living Arrangements for Older Americans at the University of Michigan, said universities that don't work retirees into their communities are missing an opportunity. Older alumni can raise endowments, provide mentors to students and foster intergenerational relationships.

"Colleges and universities really have this responsibility to society," said Pastalan, a retired architecture professor at the University of Michigan. "I think ultimately they will play a major role, or should play a major role, with what happens in retirement."

That has happened at a retirement community near the University of Michigan. The idea for the age-restricted University Commons, built on land once owned by the university, came from faculty and staff who wanted to retire near the Ann Arbor campus. The community's amenity is its proximity to the school.

Golfing shouldn't be the central activity in university-linked subdivisions, Pastalan said. "Education should be."

But in Georgia, where the golf-course formula has proved successful, the green is the main attraction.

It's the focus of the Georgia Club, 12 miles west of Athens in Statham. At the Georgia Tech Club, about 30 miles from Tech's campus in Atlanta, the Rees Jones-designed course also will be home turf for the school's golf team.

Course intrigued him

It was the course that intrigued Melisa Morrow's husband, Will. The couple plan to move to the Tech development once their 5,200-square-foot home is finished in the fall of next year.

"Golf doesn't mean anything to me, but my husband is in the golf business, and he's just drooling," said Morrow, 39, who graduated from Tech in 1987.

Morrow stopped in and met Hickman, and they discovered common friends from Tech. Those personal connections make the social aspect of the community work, Hickman said.

"That's the really exciting part," he said. "I say, `What year did you graduate?' and `Do you know so and so?' and I usually get to somebody they know."

That her builder and some of the engineers constructing the roads are Tech grads is a seal of approval, Morrow said.

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