By Shaun Chornobroff
WHEN looking at TCNJ, Rowan University, Rutgers and a number of the institutions Rider competes with for students, they all have college town areas laden with spots for food and shopping, appealing to both prospective and current students.
In March 2020, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo walked into a meeting with the university’s Board of Trustees and gained approval for a bond set to finance a college-town project he hoped would modernize the university, titled, “The Route 206 Project.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic that eliminated the final months of the 2019-20 school year and put immense strain on Rider’s already recovering financial state, the project quickly became obsolete, and more than three years after the Board of Trustees’ approval, there were no imminent plans to add a college town to the university.
“If we can get the university to get to a more sustainable financial model, I think it’s something we really need to explore in more detail. I think it can have a lot of value to the university on a number of fronts, but right now we’re just not in a position to,” Dell’Omo said in a March interview with The Rider News.
Dell’Omo’s desire for a strip representative of a college town goes back to the beginning of his tenure at the university. A Rider News article from February 2016, less than a year after his arrival, detailed the university president’s desire to transform the land by the main entrance of Rider’s Lawrenceville campus.
Accompanying Dell’Omo’s want for an attractive college town is the need for the modernization of the university’s outdated dorming. Rider’s residence halls were rated the worst in the country by Princeton Review in 2018. As a result of the discontent, there was a consistent exodus of students who made the decision to commute, cutting into potential housing revenue necessary for the school’s financial future.
The Route 206 project was a potential fix to both obstacles.
“That project was something that we know was needed here on this campus. We need more suite-style apartments,” said James Hartman, Rider’s senior vice president for finance and chief financial officer. “We want to try and get more upperclassmen back on campus, right? Certainly, you get more people back on campus, that’s going to raise your room revenue. It’s also better from a community perspective;, having more students on campus, it’s a more lively campus.”
On the higher levels would be new, apartment-style housing reserved for upperclassmen. The bottom floor, which Dell’Omo called that the “heart” of the project, was going to be filled with retail, coffee shops, potentially a medical center and dry cleaner, and other ideas in hopes that it “services not only the community, but services our own students.”
Postponed by the pandemic
In the years preceding the approval of the project, the university had made substantial progress, according to Dell’Omo and Hartman, in trimming a debt Dell’Omo projected to be $10 million in the 2017 fiscal year. In 2017, the university had its largest freshman enrollment and as a whole, the university was heading toward a more stable future after drastic cuts that accompanied Dell’Omo’s 2015 arrival.
Hartman was at the 2020 board meeting when the bond was approved and visibly remembers an applause at its conclusion.
“We were so excited about moving forward with something like this, a plan to make sure that Rider was going to be sustainable for years,” said Hartman.
The elation lasted mere days. The pandemic swept its way through higher education and the initiative was cast aside as its repercussions became more evident.
“Our focus shifted more towards survival than moving forward with a project like that,” explained Hartman.
The cash approved for the bond was repurposed and used to enhance the university’s cash in a time of uncertainty, according to Hartman.
‘We’d love to do that down the road’
Both Dell’Omo and Hartman said there are no imminent plans to bring back the Route 206 Project; however, neither eliminated the possibility should the situation arise where it made sense for the school.
“We have a good idea of what it would look like, it’s just are we in a position to fund something like that at this point in time?” said Dell’Omo when asked about the chances of the Route 206 Project being restored.
In the meantime, Rider remains committed to improving its residential housing. According to Hartman maximizing the quality and current housing options is the priority, specifically citing the plans to repurpose the unused Poyda Hall dorms as single rooms for the upcoming school year.
“We need to look at opportunities to sort of reinvest in student life and student activities and keep people on campus,” said Hartman. “That’s going to continue until we’re in a position to actually borrow some more money and reinvest in some of those residence halls and maybe someday build that residence hall out front with that retail, healthcare type of situation on the bottom floor of it.”