After Spurring Economic Development in Rising City, Alvernia University Collaborates with Notre Dame to Power Up South Bend

Author: Melanie Lux

Kelley Rich, interim vice president and associate provost for innovation at the University of Notre Dame shakes hands with Rodney Ridley, chief operating officer of the  O’Pake Institute and vice president of research, economic development and innovation at Alvernia University Kelley Rich, interim vice president and associate provost for innovation at the University of Notre Dame shakes hands with Rodney Ridley, chief operating officer of the O’Pake Institute and vice president of research, economic development and innovation at Alvernia University

Reading, Pennsylvania, birthplace of the Reading Railroad, was once among the most prosperous cities in America. After the railroad company filed for bankruptcy protection in the early 1970s, Reading fell into steep economic decline. By 2011, with more than 41 percent of the city’s residents living below the poverty line, Reading was declared the poorest small city in America. According to the FBI, the city had one of the highest crime rates in the country.

Today, thanks in part to economic development activities spurred by Alvernia University, a small, private, Franciscan Catholic institution of higher education, Reading is back on track. Through its Reading CollegeTowne initiative and the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship, Alvernia has helped spark an incredible renaissance of the city, county and the university itself, igniting increases in student and adult learning enrollment, downtown redevelopment and investment, state and federal grant funding, and community engagement.

Alvernia is now taking its entrepreneurial model on the road. Universities across the United States and as distant as Tanzania have reached out, eager to replicate the school’s novel approach to small city economic re-development.

Among the first to collaborate with Alvernia’s O’Pake Institute is the University of Notre Dame through the IDEA Center. Last year, Ryan Kreager, assistant director of entrepreneurship at the IDEA Center, was attending a conference held by the Association of University of Technology Managers, where he heard how Alvernia was using its tech transfer office to revive the city’s downtown corridor.

“I was really impressed with Alvernia’s process. Step one was listening to the entrepreneurial/creator community to determine how to serve them. Step two was unleashing an army of student interns to help the business community, whether it was building a website, doing a wrap for delivery van, helping with zoning issues or starting a company. Step three was celebrating local entrepreneurs across all Alvernia’s media channels. It was real partnership; the community got help and students got great experience,” Kreager says.

“I realized there was so much Notre Dame’s IDEA Center and Alvernia’s O’Pake Institute could learn from each other,” he adds.

In early January, the IDEA Center and Alvernia’s O’Pake Institute entered an agreement to share knowledge, training, and opportunities that support the organizations’ shared commitment to Catholic social teaching, community involvement and economic revitalization through entrepreneurship.

For its part, the IDEA Center wants to discover new ways from the O’Pake Institute to strengthen efforts to build partnerships with local government, companies, schools, and nonprofit organizations in the South Bend-Elkhart region. In return, the O’Pake Institute will tap into the IDEA Center’s deep expertise in student entrepreneurship, company formation and technology commercialization.

Kelley Rich, interim vice president and associate provost for innovation and the executive director of commercialization at the IDEA Center, says despite Alvernia’s small size—2,050 undergraduates versus Notre Dame’s 8,874—the university has defied the odds by bringing hope and growth back to Reading. “We are very excited to work with the O’Pake Institute to learn more about how they have uplifted Reading in ways that have fostered inclusion and economic development that is benefitting everyone—students, local businesses, government, and the community at large. Our goal is to build on our success in South Bend with new ideas this collaboration will bring.”

Alvernia’s efforts to champion economic development in Reading officially began with the hiring of John Loyack as president in 2019 who was succeeded by Glynis Fitzgerald in 2023.) He recruited Rodney Ridley to serve as chief operating officer of the then newly created O’Pake Institute and vice president of research, economic development and innovation. Among Ridley’s first assignments was the implementation of “the Reading CollegeTowne initiative,” an expansive initiative to embed the university and its students in downtown Reading.

“It was the most ambitious, most aggressive plan I’d ever seen, requiring buy-in from the provost, institutional advancement, faculty, and the city,” Ridley says. “Fortunately for all of us, the Reading CollegeTowne initiative became a controlled catalyst that took off quicker than any of us imagined.”

Some of the milestones achieved over the last four years include:

  • A seven-year, $70 million capital campaign raised $50 million in just 18 months.
  • The $1 million purchase and $20 million renovation of a 260,000-square-foot building in downtown Reading. The John R. Post Center at Reading College Towne is Alvernia’s new downtown living and learning facility and home to various student, business and community resources. This investment has sparked multiple real estate and development deals while increasing property values.
  • Securing of $25 million in state and federal grants for Reading’s redevelopment efforts.
  • Creation in eight months of an entirely new degree program, the John R. Post School of Engineering. The school is Alvernia’s first named program and resides in the John R. Post Center.
  • Nearly doubled the O’Pake Institute’s goal of engaging 50 student entrepreneurs; currently 80 undergraduates and 15 graduate assistants work at the institute providing startup services to local businesses.

Ridley says the O’Pake Institute has been the catalyst for two additional community-focused programs. The first is a “cultural coalition” designed to avoid gentrification of neighborhoods and support the businesses there. “The Latinx population in Reading is the largest in Pennsylvania. We want to preserve the cultural diversity and economic viability of these neighborhoods so are assisting with housing, schools and food insecurity.”

The second is an initiative to galvanize the efforts of local nonprofits that spend too much time fundraising. “We’re building a nonprofit incubator to give nonprofits a place to ‘live’ and focus on services. The SPARK Business Incubator is another opportunity for Alvernia students to get involved and benefit from experiential learning,” he adds.

Though the Notre Dame IDEA Center-Alvernia O’Pake Institute collaboration has just begun, both universities are ready to start collaborations between faculty, staff and students. O’Pake Institute members will be invited to IDEA Week in April as guests and speakers. Both entities will host individuals and delegations for on-site tours and learning.

Says Ridley, “Every town in America is trying to turn their economies around. Small universities like Alvernia and larger, more well-known universities like Notre Dame are the ones that can intentionally pour fuel on the right place at the right time and the fire, economic opportunity, will spread.”