Town and gown toleration

Several weekends ago, I hopped a ride with one of my high school buddies to visit another one of our mutual friends who goes to school in Winona, Minn. Even though I was unable to escape from the frigid Midwest weather on this mini-vacation, it did afford me the opportunity to see some new, hilly, landscapes and experience a different kind of environment – a genuine college town.

Winona State University is one of three institutions of higher learning in Winona. Because of the high concentration of twentysomethings in the town, many businesses specifically cater to them. I felt a welcome reciprocity between the town establishments and the students, a feeling that is markedly absent from Lake Forest.

Winona’s nightlife is healthily busy. Businesses all around the downtown had special college student specials. While I was there, people my age were strolling down the main street, hitting the random bars as they went. Obviously, this would never fly in Lake Forest. The town prides itself on its solitude and idyllic setting; having a bunch of slightly-intoxicated college kids walking around Market Square would trigger a commotion bigger than the Walgreens’ pigs.

The first, and probably insurmountable, obstacle facing increased Lake Forest nightlife is the town’s closing time. I have yet to encounter another place where the gas station shuts down at 10:30 p.m. But even if a bustling night scene is completely out of the picture, why can’t business during the daytime be different?

Lake Forest businesses that sell affordable wares and offer friendly service have a customer base of nearly 2,000 ready to patronize them. What baffles me is that there aren’t more of them. Restaurants like The Lantern and Chief’s are friendly to us Foresters, but they don’t exactly offer the beer and hot dog specials that would bring droves of us. And undoubtedly, that is not their objective. Establishments that catered to town residents and establishments that offered college resources existed quite peacefully next to each other in Winona.

There are few businesses other than eateries that are useful to Lake Forest students. Yes, many banks would take our money, but that’s about it. Most of downtown is banks. The Gap was a store that was appealing, but now that has since closed down and become a bank. We’re college students; we want to spend our money, not save it.

Going a step further, Winona’s businesses not only tap into the college market, but there seems to be a genuine sense of overall community. Events in Winona were publicized and attended by both campus and town populations (such as a rally for Al Franken). In Lake Forest, the Gorton “Community” Center will only hang posters for events that happen in the Gorton Center. And while I’m grateful for the number of merchants who will allow The Stentor in their business, a number (cough…Whole Foods) flat-out refuse to carry it.

I’ve seen town/gown relations improve slightly over the past four years, but they’re nothing compared to other places. Lake Forest could learn a few lessons from Winona. Or, looking closer, Evanston. Here is another town that has a sense of pride about its institution of higher learning just twenty miles to our south. It would be great to feel appreciated, not merely tolerated.

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