Parking, safety and traffic flow are among the concerns local residents have when it comes to making changes at Northeastern State University.
Monday night, NSU held the first of several community meetings to involve citizens with its upcoming Master Plan.
NSU Director for Operations Tim Foutch welcomed the group of about two dozen area residents, including Sen. Jim Wilson and Rep. Mike Brown.
“We have engaged a number of consultants, all of whom are here tonight to visit with you and answer your questions,” said Foutch. “We have representatives from Dewberry, Smith Group JJR and Paulen and Associates, who will be working with us as we go forward to develop the plan.”
Foutch turned the meeting over to Smith Group JJR’s Neal Kessler, who familiarized the audience with the process.
“We want to hear from you — your likes, dislikes, what works and what doesn’t,” Kessler said. “We’ve already spoken with the university’s steering committee and advisory committee, and have taken a tour of the campus. Tomorrow, we’ll spend the day in meetings with people from across the campus, then we’ll go to Broken Arrow and Muskogee. We think it’s important, as a university, to engage the community.”
Kessler said his firm specializes in university Master Planning. It completed plans for Kent State, Indiana University, Arkansas State University and Western Illinois University, to name a few.
“This is all we do,” Kessler said. “I’ve been doing this 25 years. What is important to realize is this is the first Master Plan in NSU’s history, and this meeting begins a 15-month process. We want to find out where we want to be in 25 years, and talk about how to get there.”
The plan encompasses all three campuses: Tahlequah, Muskogee and Broken Arrow.
“We’re trying to make a distinctive and memorable place for people to learn,” Kessler said. “We’ll look at all the elements, including pedestrian, parking and open spaces, as well as demographics — where your students are coming from, and what they expect.”
Lauren Williams, also with Smith Group JJR, said bringing a number of groups together helps them formulate ideas about what will be best for the university and the community.
“Each feeds input to the Master Plan team, which gives us direction,” Williams said. “Groups include the steering committee, campus community advisory groups, and open houses like this, which include campus residents and local residents. We also have smaller focus groups for hot-button issues, which may include construction and infrastructure. Since students don’t often come to meetings, we go to them. We’ll also keep everyone up to date with online information.”
The plan is broken into five parts, or tasks: discovery, analysis, idea generation, refinement and final reporting.
“We’re in the first phase now, where we gather information, collect ideas and set goals,” said Williams. “The second part [slated for January] is when we’ll look at the campus community from a physical standpoint, including parking, buildings, and safety.”
Frank Markley, also with Smith Group JJR, said the second phase will also involve a spatial needs analysis.
“This is where we determine if the campus has sufficient space for projected enrollment,” Markley said. “We’ll weigh what we have against what’s needed in the future.”
During the third phase, the consultants will return with what they refer to as the “three big ideas.”
“We’ll present three different models, and put them all out there on the table for everyone to react to,” said Williams. “Then, we’ll take the best pieces of the three to move the Master Plan forward.”
Phase four involves creating documents for the plan’s implementation, followed by the final phase, in which a report is prepared to be shared with the public.
“The final report will include illustrative graphics, and will be made public, preferably in a city hall, for everyone to look at,” said Williams.
Sen. Jim Wilson asked how the process began at NSU.
“[Foutch] said NSU looked for consultants,” Kessler said. “This is not our plan; it’s the university’s plan. We were selected to work with the university, then we built a team. Well, actually, I should say Dewberry built the team, as they have a long relationship with NSU.”
Local businessman David Dick asked Kessler if the Master Plan was strictly structural.
“Also, is there a plan to fund the Master Plan, other than going to the regents?” asked Dick.
According to Kessler, the final plan will include both physical and academic components.
“Once we have the Master Plan with a consensus, we’ll suggest a series of projects, and we’ll put realistic costs that can, at least, help the university determine when they’ll act on those projects,” said Kessler. “We’re not looking at ways to fund it; our job is to create the road map.”
Retired NSU professor Isabel Baker said she welcomes the concept of change at NSU.
“I’m very excited,” Baker said. “You can only be as good as your plan, and we, in this state, have been doing things piece-meal for too long. I believe we need change.”
Wilson said he hoped the plan wouldn’t shift the majority of the student population away from Tahlequah, and pointed out the Broken Arrow campus originated as a way for freshmen to enroll in basic education classes, then work their way to Tahlequah to finish degrees.
“When NSU opened the Broken Arrow campus, it was to stop the migration,” said Wilson. “We [in Tahlequah] were to maintain ownership. We don’t want the value of the Tahlequah campus diminished by expanding Broken Arrow and Tulsa. I know there’s stress from Tulsa to enhance Broken Arrow, but we need a plan that’s good for everyone. And I’ll tell you now, it will be a concern.”
Kessler said the goal is make NSU the best university at all three campuses, and to promote equal growth.
NSU President Steve Turner said he hopes residents will look at the Master Plan as a positive experience.
“This is an amazing opportunity to position NSU — where it sits — to be better and to prepare for the next 25 years,” Turner said. “We want to make sure the message is clear, positive and constructive.”
Residents were then asked to view maps of the city and campus, and offer their ideas to Kessler, Williams and Markley.
One woman, who lives near campus, said traffic and safety on Grand Avenue are her concerns. She used to bicycle to work, and is now afraid to. She asked the consultants to review the possibility of making better thoroughfares in and out of campus, which would reduce traffic on the smaller side streets.
Barbara Cook, wife of former Mayor Jerry Cook, who now serves NSU as director of community and government relations, said she had infrastructure concerns, too.
“I’d like to see lighting in the parking lots, and better sidewalks,” Cook said. “The new North End District has just bloomed over the past four years, and a lot of the students walk down there from campus to get something to eat. I’d just like to see a better connection, and better lighting, which should be an easy fix.”
TEDDYE SNELL writes for the Tahlequah Daily Press.