NAU and Flagstaff: When borders overlap, opinions clash

NAU creates a home for students of all backgrounds to learn and cultivate new skills. Through the years, the campus has continued to modify the city of Flagstaff to change with it. NAU policy not only affects the college, but the citizens that have been part of the Flagstaff community for a lifetime. 

The city is divided between its citizens and  NAU. Although these two groups live in close proximity, there is a distinct difference between those who live and work in the city versus students who live in Flagstaff and use the city as their playground during their time as a Lumberjack. An article by The Lumberjack states that Flagstaff is one of the worst job markets in the nation, which is a reason college kids seek employment elsewhere after graduation.

Sophomore Abigail Brown said she has seen and experienced this divide between campus and city. She said she has experienced the college town feel that Flagstaff offers and even sometimes overlooks the fact that families and nonstudents live in Flagstaff as well. 

Many students’ knowledge of Flagstaff politics does not extend much farther than the campus limits, Brown said. She explained she thinks students were fairly unaware who was in charge of making many decisions for the city. ASNAU was trying to bring some Flagstaff candidates on campus to advertise their campaigns, but it was too difficult with the pandemic. 

One of the biggest takeaways Brown has found is although there may be a divide, she is still able to find those businesses that support not only the campus, but the students as well. 

Since Flagstaff is a college town, Brown said she enjoys seeing businesses that represent NAU by having its signs and logos on display. She said it makes her feel as if they support students.

Brown said she thinks a divide between students and Flagstaff may not be as much of a problem as it is made out to be. In the future, campus should capitalize on connections between the university and the city instead of creating possible resentment, she said.

“I would like to see the NAU community get a little more strengthened in the Flagstaff community because these businesses are willing to put our logo in their windows and I would want to see more students interacting with that,” Brown said. “As a community if these businesses are going to support us, we should support them.” 

Nevertheless, just as the students of NAU feel a particular way about this relationship, the citizens of Flagstaff have formed their own opinions on the continued change in their community. 

Longtime Flagstaff citizen Janice Ribelin has been a member of the community, with family and friends rooted in this city. She has lived in the city for 46 years and works in public relations. She said when she first moved to the mountain town, there was only about 24,000 people and it has changed from being the small town she once knew. As the campus has continued to expand, she said she has been able to see the effects with a clear picture of the past. 

Ribelin said the changes she has seen in Flagstaff throughout the years have been drastic. These dynamic shifts have not only affected the city in regard to structure and layout, but additionally many Flagstaff landmarks including Arizona Snowbowl and even the overall attitude of those living in the city.

“The growth has been somewhat slow until recently,” Ribelin said. “I think that people with a lot of different views came in before we were a handshake town — if we made a promise we kept it. With growth, you lose integrity and honesty. People have come in and tried to make Flagstaff a big city, but I really loved the small town that it was.” 

This growth is not confined to the infrastructure of Flagstaff, but also extends to the NAU campus. Ribelin said the growth of campus has benefits, but the complication results in the overflow of campus into the city and creates a lack of blend with the prior establishments. 

Ribelin said the students add a different dynamic to the community, but do not fully integrate themselves as members of the general public. She said as a whole, the community of Flagstaff does not really interact with the students and maintains the separation.

“A lot of times we don’t interact with the campus people,” Ribelin said. “I think that they have such a vibrant life on campus and they come and visit the restaurants, which is great. They will go skiing and that’s great, but I don’t think there is a definite interaction.”

Ribelin explained that for many Flagstaff residents the students do not pose a problem to the community, but rather the planning of the new NAU buildings and housing structures continuously being built. One of the big challenges that many Flagstaff residents face is the limited parking that comes with the students living off campus. 

Ribelin said for many of the residents living around Flagstaff, the limited parking space results in the inability for them to invite people and even in some extreme cases, the residents are unable to leave their homes after being blocked in. Ribelin said one way to help ease the tension would be a new system for parking around Flagstaff like underground garages. She said parking on the streets can wreak havoc with snow-plowing and can create daily problems for citizens having to live with it.

Ribelin feels as though the campus has an important role in the city and does a lot of good, and with some changes could continue to create an atmosphere of community with the Flagstaff residents. 

With the recent announcement of new NAU President José Luis Cruz, one of the many questions was what was going to be done to bridge the gap between the NAU community and the Flagstaff community.

Cruz, in a recent interview conducted by The Lumberjack editor-in-chief Scout Ehrler, said he hopes to strengthen this relationship by giving many different platforms for the community members to speak and have an outlet for committees, nonprofits and organizations to create a structure for better communication between the campus and the community.

“What I heard when I last talked to community members is that they really just want to find their aspirations through ours and the work that they are doing,” Cruz said. “How can we help them and the work that they do and how can they help us?”

With an optimistic eye on the future of relations between the NAU and Flagstaff communities and a central focus on strengthened communication, Cruz said he hopes to create a relationship that inspires cooperation and community. With this new perspective, the citizens of Flagstaff and NAU can create a new era of cooperation and comradery. 

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