February 01, 2017 9:30AM
Plans to transform four historic buildings in downtown Pittsburg into a unique living, learning community for Pittsburg State students is part of a growing national trend.
In addition to student housing, the Block22 project at 4th and Broadway will also include offices for the University Center for Innovation and Business Development, a makerspace (a collaborative community workspace designed for creativity and prototyping), business incubator, co-working area, and a multi-function event and educational space.
Block22 is a joint project between Pittsburg State, the City of Pittsburg and a private developer, the Vecino Group from Springfield, Mo.
Mat Burton, chief operating officer for the Vecino Group and a Pittsburg State graduate, said the project is beginning at an opportune time for the university and the community.
“I truly believe that with Block22, Pittsburg and Pittsburg State are at the forefront of what is becoming a growing trend across the county,” Burton said. “Many colleges and universities in the U.S. began in their communities’ downtown areas, and we are seeing more and more universities wanting to return to their roots. We are seeing many universities become more interwoven with their downtown areas.”
Pittsburg State itself is among those universities that have roots in or near downtown. The university’s first home was a high school building at the northwest corner of Fifth and Walnut. The university was located there until moving to its current site in 1909. The Block22 project would be located just two blocks from PSU’s original location.
Burton said Block22, projected to open in August 2018, will have “a tremendous impact” on the culture within the city and university.
“When you look at many benefits of projects like these, what you see is that one of the most important effects they have is attitudinal,” he said. “The success of projects like Block22 instills this sense of the possible into the entire community because that success is happening right there in the heart of the city. It’s hard to travel to through the community and not see it.
“It can be hard sometimes to overcome this feeling that small towns like ours just don’t do this type of thing,” he said. “However, projects and progress like this can change that way of thinking. It shows everyone what can be done, if we just try.”
That opportunity to effect positive change in Pittsburg, a place he considers home, is one of the main reasons that Burton wanted his Vecino Group team to partner with the city and university on the Block22 project.
“Pittsburg means a lot to me,” he said. “The people in Pittsburg mean a lot to me. So to have this chance to come back and work on a project in a community I care so much about is a tremendous honor.”
Burton graduated from St. Mary’s Colgan High School before attending Pittsburg State University, where he was president of the Student Government Association. In 1997, he graduated from PSU with a degree in marketing. His professional career, particularly with the national and international Enactus organizations, has taken him across the country and around the world, working on projects related to higher education and economic development.
From 1999 to 2015, Burton served in various roles for Enactus, including director of university relations, vice president of USA programs and chief marketing officer. After years of traveling the country and the world with Enactus, Burton returned to the region in 2015 to join Vecino in Springfield.
“What attracted me to Vecino is that they do mission-driven development projects,” he said. “They do work where work is needed and in places where they can do the most good. I really admired that. I also wanted to continue to work with universities, and I thought my experience and skillset could help in Vecino’s work with universities in various communities.”
When the conversation began about transforming downtown Pittsburg, Burton saw a unique opportunity for the city and Pittsburg State.
“What I saw here was a community that hadn’t yet leveraged all of its development and partnership opportunities,” he said. “A big part of that was Pittsburg State. The city and university has a unique partnership, and we saw a great chance to build upon that relationship with this downtown project.”
Burton said creating student housing in the downtown area could have many benefits regarding recruiting and retaining students.
“More and more these days, students are looking for these urban-oriented experiences,” he said. “That’s true in communities of all sizes. Being able to leave your room and walk to dinner or walk to a show or walk to get coffee, that’s all part of that urban, city experience. Projects like Block22, because they are in downtown areas, can create the type of environment that students are looking for.
“It also helps transform the image and reputation of the entire city,” he said. “When cool, innovative things happen in a community, that community can cultivate this image of a cool, innovative place.”
For more information about Block22, visit http://www.pittstate.edu/info/block22/index.dot. Follow the progress of Block22 on Twitter at @block22psu.