When the Borough of West Chester wanted to set up a program for local leaders, Mayor Carolyn Comitta's first thought was that she might need to go to Philadelphia to find the expertise West Chester needed.
Then the mayor realized she should do what she often tells others to do: try West Chester University.
Soon a faculty member from the Center for Contemplative Studies was leading a three-month program in stress reduction for community leaders. And because he used the project as a research study, it came at no charge to the borough, Comitta said.
The university calls that an example of the type of collaboration it has long sought with community members and hopes to strengthen with the new Center for Community Solutions.
"So many solutions to intractable problems are very simple: You just have to put the right people together," Comitta said. "That's what this center does."
The idea: Someone with a need - say, a nonprofit looking to launch a project, or a municipal official looking to research something - calls the center. The center finds the department that can best help, and faculty, staff, and students offer their expertise and time - often, though not always, at no cost.
"West Chester University has done this informally for years," said Carol Aichele, the center's outreach coordinator. "What this does is bring [requests] to a central point of contact."
Comitta said she often connects constituents with experts at the college. She said she wanted to create a way for that type of collaboration to live on after her term ends in 2017.
West Chester University president Greg Weisenstein "and I have this very strong commitment to the community-campus relationship, and I thought, this is not going to be sustainable unless we institutionalize it," Comitta said.
The center became part of the university's strategic plan and was three years in the making, said Christopher Fiorentino, WCU's vice president for external operations and newly named to become interim president on April 1 after Weisenstein retires.
"We see this as a great opportunity for faculty and students," Fiorentino said. "And in the meantime, we're hopefully out there solving problems."
In the last five months, dozens of people have approached the center: it has 40 projects pending, said Susan Argentieri, the center's liaison.
Already, the school is working on aiding one township develop a new park.
Student interns are helping the Uptown! Entertainment Alliance, which is opening a theater in West Chester, make the most of a fund-raising mobile app.
The homelessness prevention program Decade to Doorways and the Chester County Department of Community Development hope to commission a study from the university on permanent housing nationwide and gather data that will allow them to work with landlords.
The projects offer students learning and work opportunities they would not have come across otherwise and allow faculty to work in the community, Argentieri said.
Many projects come with no fee, but the university might charge on a project-by-project basis.
Regardless, using WCU is generally cheaper and faster than seeking private help, Comitta said.
Community-university partnerships are in place at thousands of schools, some of which West Chester examined as models, Aichele said.
Sometimes such partnerships are established to solve specific problems, but West Chester is open for broad collaborations.
"The opportunities are really limitless," Aichele said.
It could also help the school's relations with its surrounding neighborhood, where some have historically complained about noise and rowdy students.
"I always thought, gosh, there's a missed opportunity here if all we're doing is criticizing and drawing a line in the sand between the borough and the university," Comitta said.
The center opened in September and is set to have a formal kickoff in the spring, Aichele said.
Patrick Bokovitz, director of the Chester County Department of Community Development, said it was exciting to work with the university for the project on homelessness - and he hopes that forging relationships with students could lead some to job opportunities in his office someday.
He said the partnership would take his department's long-standing relationship with the university to another level.
Said Bokovitz: "Everyone has an idea of creating a win-win."