Town Center West Approved by Board, Causes Student Response

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last weekend, the College’s recommendation to self-develop the Swarthmore Town Center West was approved by the Board of Managers. The proposed project would include a 40- to 45-room inn, a restaurant, and a bookstore.

According to President Rebecca Chopp, the Town Center West will be an “intellectual living room” for the campus, including a large meeting space to house academic events, in addition to the proposed hospitality components.

By providing a space for visiting lecturers, families, and alumni to be housed on campus, Chopp hopes the Town Center West will allow departments to hold more conferences and panels. “It will be an extremely important part of the community,” Chopp said.

Maurice Eldridge, Vice President, echoed this sentiment, saying, “We really don’t have the capacity to host small to medium-sized conferences.” In addition, the restaurant will help to create an environment that promotes informal, intellectual gatherings.

The idea of an inn on campus was first proposed well over ten years ago, but planning was stalled due to the economic climate. Last June, after the college was approved to apply for a $2 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the project was brought “back to the table,” Chopp said.

Some changes in the project have been made in the months leading up to the February Board meeting. The recommendation approved by the Board of Managers over the weekend included a smaller inn that had originally been considered, suggesting approximately 40 to 45 rooms. According to Sue Welsh, Vice President for Finance and Treasurer, two independent market studies were done and both pointed to an optimal size of about 40 to 45 rooms.

In deciding the scale for the inn, the College also had to look at what seemed feasible both in terms of operation and finance, Eldridge said.

The decision to self-develop is another recent shift in the project. Originally, the college had planned to contract an outside developer. According to Welsh, the options that arose from meetings with developers were not financially attractive. “What the developer offered us did not meet [our] criteria,” Welsh said.

According to Chopp, self-development will also give the college more control over the Town Center West in terms of staffing and other operational decisions. “The College has a long, positive history of ensuring competitive wage and benefit packages,” Chopp wrote in a email to the student body. “Our commitment to these conditions holds true for any staff person working on our campus and will include those who will work at the inn and restaurant.”

The Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) presented a letter to the Town Center West Committee last week asking for “concrete action” to be taken on this statement. “We remain hopeful that [the College] will…make those words ring true,” SLAP wrote in a request that a neutrality agreement be recommended to the Board. This recommendation was not made at the February Board of Managers meeting.

Students at a rally for workers’ rights, and specifically the institution of a neutrality agreement, during the Board meeting last Friday. Over fifty students were in attendance, according to Bortner. Photo by Jiuxing June Xie.

According to Adam Bortner ’12, a member of SLAP, a neutrality agreement is needed to “put protections [for workers’ rights] in place.” In response to the College’s decision not to include a neutrality agreement in the recommendation to the Board, several members of SLAP, along with residents in the Borough of Swarthmore, have started collecting signatures for a liquor referendum.

“If we cannot be certain that concrete protections for the future employees will be in place, we will work to make sure the community is able to have a vote on an issue that would affect the Town Center West project, regarding the granting of liquor licenses,” SLAP wrote in its letter to the Town Center West Committee.

If enough signatures are collected, the liquor policy in the Borough could be up for a vote. Currently, the Borough is dry with the exception of the Town Center West, once it is completed. The current law is based on a vote that was held about ten years ago. According to Bortner, “the community deserves another say on this.”

If there is a vote on Swarthmore’s liquor policy, the outcome could result in a dry Town Center West or, alternately, in the possibility of a liquor license for any “qualified business,” Bortner said.

In terms of the connection between the liquor law and labor at the Town Center West, Bortner said, “there’s not a clear link.”

Solange Hilfinger-Pardo ’12, a member of both the Town Center West Committee and of SLAP, said that the committee discussed what a neutrality agreement would entail in terms of the Town Center West, but that “no decision was come to.”

According to Hilfinger-Pardo, the recommendation presented to the Board “seemed reasonable to everyone” on the Town Center West Committee. She said that she understands the neutrality agreement to be a “decision that will end up being made by the Board.”

Eldridge said that it is possible that the employees of the Town Center West would not be College employees in the same way that Dining Services and EVS workers are. Instead, the College may consider other means of operation for the Town Center West.

If the workers at the Town Center West were College employees, “it would be a step in the right direction,” Bortner said. “Ensuring something is better than nothing.” However, “a union… is having a voice,” Bortner added.

Still, Eldridge said that the College would uphold their labor standards at the Town Center West. “We can’t imagine a structure in which our values are absent,” Eldridge said.

Over the coming weeks, the College is hosting a variety of discussions related to the Town Center West, with a panel discussion on labor issues scheduled for March 2. The panel will include the supervising attorney from the Philadelphia office of the National Labor Relations Board and two attorneys practicing in labor law. The College is also bringing Rick Pastorino, of RevPAR International, Inc., for a lecture on the hospitality industry on February 28.

“There are other good, important questions that the inn project has elicited,” Chopp wrote in her email to the student body, “and these too, will be addressed in future public sessions.”

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