Brookings Mayor Tim Reed (center) discusses town-and-gown issues with SDSU Students’ Association leaders Jameson Berreth (left) and Wyatt DeJong. As mayor, Reed has made it a policy to confer with the students regularly during the school year, reviewing student needs and city plans. The trio met the past week at the new Buffalo Wild Wings. Photo by Ken Curley/Brookings Register
• Student leaders have developed strong working relationship with city government
BROOKINGS – When Buffalo Wild Wings applied for the city’s last available tavern license in August 2011, there were other contenders.
Several local businesses were seeking the lone permit, and a well-known steakhouse franchise, Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill, was a popular candidate.
But Buffalo Wild Wings was the winner, in part because it had a special ally.
SDSU students lobbied hard for the restaurant so they could have a bar and grill in “their neighborhood” – in the Village Square shopping center just a few blocks from campus. Hundreds signed a petition urging the city council to grant the license to Wild Wings.
Whether the student petition was the deciding factor is debatable, but Brookings Mayor Tim Reed acknowledges that the student support “was considered” when the council made its decision. “Were the students flexing their muscles?” Reed asks rhetorically. “They really wanted Buffalo Wild Wings to get that liquor license.”
But while the student government’s unanimous resolution in favor of a license for Wild Wings was part of the mix, the mayor says, “The real reason they got that liquor license – from my point of view – was that they needed that type of liquor license. They’re a good business. Did the students have an influence on the vote? I listened to them.”
A sleeping giant
In political terms, the SDSU student body is a sleeping giant. If the collegians had the will, they could control virtually every election in Brookings.
Do the math: South Dakota State University has an enrollment of about 12,800, almost every student of voting age. That’s more than half of the city’s total population of 22,300.
United, the students could literally take over city and county government, electing their own candidates and making financial decisions that would affect the community for decades, long after they’d collected their sheepskins and headed for parts unknown.
Reed admits that the students “could really howl if they wanted to. …That ought to be a message to the community.”
But that isn’t how it works in Brookings, thanks to the foresight of several community leaders and the enlightened self-interest demonstrated by recent SDSU student body presidents.
In Brookings, the student-community partnership has been successful because both the students and city officials have consciously worked at it. Communication is the key.
“It’s mutually beneficial for everyone the more we work together,” says Jameson Berreth, current president of the university’s Students’ Association (SA).
“I’ve heard students from other towns say they don’t have the best relationship with their city council or city. But I’m happy to say that’s not the case here. We’ve always gotten along with the city council. They’re always happy to meet with us, and we have a report to city council at every meeting.”
Clout with everyone
Berreth, a senior from Eureka, knows that as spokesman for nearly 13,000 students he wields significant political power, not only in Brookings but on a state level.
“Clout? I think so. Absolutely. I’d say we have clout with everyone,” Berreth says. “They at least hear us out. Whether they agree with us, that’s a different issue. But they’re always willing to sit down and talk with us, whether it’s the regents, city council or state legislators.”
Berreth has worked with state Sen. Larry Tidemann of Brookings, who carried the students’ Good Samaritan bill to the Legislature, and he’s met personally with legislators throughout the region, as well as members of the board of regents, to lobby for student issues.
Mayor Reed has done as much as any local official to forge strong ties with student groups, but he credits his predecessor, Scott Munsterman, for really starting the campus-community dialogue.
“When I was a council member, I tried to meet with the students at least once a semester,” Reed says, “just to hear what they had to say. That’s because I do believe it’s really an important part of Brookings – their size and what they mean to the community – so I thought I should make that connection.
“When I became mayor, I stepped that up. I try to meet with them once a month during active semesters, and at least once in the summer.”
Reed also introduces the students to City Manager Jeff Weldon, so that “all lines of communication are open and they know who to contact when they need help.”
Relating to students
Reed relates particularly well to students, in part because he’s a young man and enthusiastic, but also because as a development officer with the SDSU Foundation, he has daily contact with students and faculty.
“I think I’m closer to what the university is trying to accomplish, and that helps me understand the university’s role in town,” he says.
One of the university’s deans, Keith Corbett, also sits on the city council, and that strengthens the relationship, too.
Ryan Brunner may be the best example of what the city and student relationship is all about – he personifies what campus-community cooperation can achieve. Now a staff member with the Brookings Economic Development Corporation, Brunner was the Students’ Association president who, with then-mayor Scott Munsterman, helped strengthen the student-community links that exist today.
Not only did Brunner work with the mayor and council, he ultimately became a council member himself, running for one of the at-large seats.
“Munsterman got us involved,” says Brunner, who headed the student body in 2005-06. “He was a proponent, and he showed us how we could get actual support from the city. He showed us the ropes.”
Brunner says the SDSU students were starting to get the message even before the Munsterman connection:
“It was a few years before me. Advisers were telling students to take their (student government) responsibility more seriously. After all, our student population made us equal to the eighth or ninth largest city in the state.
“We kind of focused on that mindset, that we were responsible for a couple million dollars a year (in student funds), and we began to pay attention to how we interacted with other government entities.”
Brunner said that one of the things SA members felt was critical to their success was the creation of a state-local government liaison.
“We made it a scholarship position,” he says, “so the student who held that post was required to attend council meetings, give reports and so on.”
Only a few years older than the current student leaders, Brunner continues to advise them on their role in local government and beyond:
“It really starts with showing up. Decisions are made by people who come to things. I tell them, ‘If you want a seat at the table, you need to help yourself to a chair.’”
What that means, Brunner says, is that “if you’re not there participating, you need to open that door if you want to be involved. You have to be recognized before anything can happen.”
Things did happen under Brunner’s leadership. The students wanted a new wellness center, and the city – which was a half-million-dollar contributor – helped the students move up its construction timeline.
“The project went from a $6 million facility to $12.1 million building, and the city benefited because it’s a shared facility – community residents can use it, too,” he notes.
Brunner also pointed to the SafeRide program, which gives free bus transport to students patronizing local bars and other downtown establishments.
It started as a six-week pilot program during Brunner’s SA presidency, and the city joined the students in developing the program. It’s now a full-fledged operation with two buses running Thursday through Saturday. Student association fees pay for the rides, along with state grants and $5,000 the City of Brookings kicks in each year.
The students got the city’s attention last year when they asked for some consideration for the many bicyclists who ride to and from campus. The result was a series of specially dedicated, well-marked bike lanes on city streets.
Greater share of money
In late 2010, the Students’ Association came to council asking for a greater share of “3rd B” tax money. The council since 2005 had been giving the SA $35,000 of the tax revenues from food sales, but the students argued that growing student numbers had pushed up the revenue from their campus meal plans. The council studied the figures the students presented and awarded them an additional $15,000 a year. (The SA uses the funds to promote events that keep students in Brookings on weekends.)
There have been other notable successes in recent years, and they’ve all come about because students and city work to keep the conversation going. For its part, the city has made a genuine effort to involve SDSU students in local government, and almost every board or commission – like Parks and Recreation or Traffic Safety – has student members.
Even with the strength of their numbers, however, students are generally poor voters.
“When it comes to municipal elections, you find very few students voting,” says the mayor. “As a voting bloc, they’re not very active, unless they get behind a specific candidate.”
The Students’ Association has a hands-off policy in that regard – it’s strictly nonpartisan when it comes to party politics – but other student political groups (think Young Republicans and Young Democrats) can and do participate locally. Campus voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts are not uncommon.
Students do show up for general elections, however, and a strong surge of campus support for Obama in 2008 may have cost at least one veteran state legislator his job.
But if the students choose to get involved in large numbers, they could certainly tip the scales in any local election. In the 2010 municipal balloting, for example, local residents cast just under 2,100 ballots. With at least 10,000 eligible university voters, it would be relatively easy for students to flex their ballot-box muscle.
Seat on council?
Should the students have their own seat on city council? The jury’s out on that one, says Reed. “How do you do that well?”
Some college-town councils have a non-voting student member, the mayor notes. But he points out that most student leaders have been in Brookings for only a short time – a year or two at best – and “being a council member takes a few years to get up to speed.”
“Students are not immune to community politics,” the mayor adds. “There’s concern right now about the number of (nationally franchised) restaurants in the union. They have really good restaurants, and there’s so much students can do on campus now, some people worry about them not having to go off campus.”
President Berreth says dialog will go a long way to defusing issues like that, and he’d like the Students’ Association to maintain the relationship with Brookings as it now exists:
“It’s always important that everybody knows what’s going on. In my experience, when there’s no communication, when that breaks down, more problems pop up that shouldn’t even be problems.”
Reed pledges to continue to seek student input and involvement, too. “Their energy level is great to have, and I think it brings energy to the government, also.”
An honorary member of the university’s Golden Key Society, Reed says he enjoys the interaction with student leaders:
“When I speak to them, I tell them, ‘We’re building this city for you; we want you – if you have an opportunity, if there’s a job that works for you – we want you to like this town and stay here. It will help us to stay a younger town.’”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.