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Community Relations office moves downtown

Smedberg, Matt | Thursday, October 30, 2003

Notre Dame’s Office of Community Relations is moving to a new location today, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony to be presided over by South Bend mayor Stephen Luecke and University President Father Edward Malloy. The office’s new home will be at 217 S. Michigan St., in a building downtown leased from Memorial Hospital.

Sharing the space will be two other Notre Dame ventures: the South Bend Downtown Design Center, run by the School of Architecture, and the Crossroads Gallery, an art gallery run by the Snite Museum, the Department of Art and the Institute for Latino Studies.

The Office of Community Relations is headed by Jackie Rucker, who was hired last April. The purpose of the office is to be a bridge between the University and the greater South Bend Community.

Rucker, who grew up in South Bend, admits that relations between the University and the community have been “less than stellar” in the past. Things began to change with the foundation of the Center for Social Concerns in 1983, she said, as well as the initiative by Father Jim Roemer to create a University-sponsored Christmas in April program. The same program still exists under the name Rebuilding Together. Roemer was director of the Office of Community Relations until he retired last year.

Rucker works with many community leaders to make the University’s influence in the community a positive one. She is on the board planning the development of the Northeast Neighborhood adjacent to campus.

“Residents have come to me,” Rucker said, “to tell me how much they appreciated the way the University built the houses on Notre Dame Avenue. One woman told me that it looks just the way she remembers it from when she was a little girl.”

Much of Community Relations’ work is in conjunction with Downtown South Bend, a local nonprofit organization which is dedicated, according to their mission statement, to restoring local economy and fostering a “vibrant Downtown … for a better quality of life in South Bend.”

DTSB also works with the South Bend Downtown Design Center, or Urban Studio, whose new home is the second floor of the building that houses the Community Relations offices. The Studio consists of 15 advanced architecture students under the direction of John Stamper, associate chair of the School of Architecture. The students – fifth-year students in the fall semester, fourth-years in the spring – work on designs for buildings or renovations that would affect and benefit the local community.

The students’ task this semester is to design a new building for the Studebaker National Museum, whose previous home was declared structurally unsound and unsafe several years ago. The new site is attached to the Northern Indiana Center for History on Chapin Street in South Bend.

Though the ceremonial opening of the center takes place on Thursday morning, the students are already moved in and hard at work finishing their designs.

Student designs will be submitted to Rebecca Bonham, director of the museum, and local architects. Stamper said that, for this reason, it’s very likely that when the final word is spoken, elements from these students’ designs will probably figure in it.

But having their work actually built is not the real purpose of the Urban Studio. It is “so that students can get real-world experiences,” said Kara Kelly, the Architecture School’s director of communications. “The nice thing is that we have no agenda. The students work with community leaders and developers, and can emphasize the good of the community in their design process.”

The third University entity that calls the former storefront home is the Crossroads Gallery, which is a joint venture of the Art Department, the Snite Gallery and the Institute for Latino Studies. The gallery will showcase the work of local artists and occasional Latino exhibitions. The gallery opens with a showing of the work of Latina painter Carmen Lomas Garza, an Arizona artist whose work speaks of the Chicano experience in America.

South Bend residents have responded positively to the new office. “Having the Office in an accessible, downtown location is more than symbolic,” Rucker said. “It gives us an opportunity to be on their turf, and for that they know that we are serious about being a real part of the community.”