Office to handle community relations

In an attempt to ease the strained relationship between GW and Foggy Bottom residents, the University is devoting more resources to improving community relations.

GW established the Office of D.C. and Foggy Bottom/West End Affairs earlier this month to create a neighborhood liaison department. Michael Akin, formerly a government relations assistant, heads the office.

“Like all urban institutions, our location in Foggy Bottom (and) West End presents certain town-gown issues,” said Akin, a GW alumnus. “This makes having an open dialogue with the community crucial.”

These “town-gown” issues include disputes over land occupation, new construction and noise complaints – all of which have caused conflict between GW and the community in the past.

While Akin said the University has always tried to settle such disputes, he said there was never one “true coordinated effort” or a single office to deal with community complaints.

“It will be a go-to resource for our neighbors,” said Richard Sawaya, vice president for Government, International and Corporate Affairs. “The office is an attempt to coordinate an outreach effort and provide a prompt and deliberate response to community concerns. The key here is to coordinate, be responsible and be practical.”

Responsibilities of the new office include working with local government agencies that regulate the University and coordinating GW’s participation in community events. The office will also try to promote positive dialogue between GW and its neighbors through FRIENDS, a group created in 2001 that allows community members to present their complaints to University administrators.

Akin said the community will be receptive to the new office and that most will see it as a proactive means for constructive change.

“The response thus far has been very positive,” he said. “I think everyone sees this as a win-win situation for the University and for the neighborhood.”

Rita Champagne, a Foggy Bottom resident, said she agrees with Akin and credits him with the office’s success.

“I think they made an excellent selection for the director,” she said. “I’ve known him for four years, and I was impressed since the first day I met him. He’ll do a nice job because he is very well liked among many of the residents.”

Champagne, co-founder of FRIENDS, is active within the Foggy Bottom community and frequently participates in University events. While there is an ongoing rivalry between community members attempting to retain their residential neighborhood and the increasingly expanding University, she said, the new office is the first step towards compromise.

“He’s positive and that’s what we need to start with,” she said. “I think anything positive can’t hurt, and every little bit helps. This (office) has the potential of doing a lot of good things.”

Ron Cocome, president of the Foggy Bottom Association, could not be reached for comment. But in the past, he has accused the University of lying to residents and has urged GW to stop expanding without considering neighbors’ views.

“I can’t imagine a worse neighbor,” Cocome said in March. “It would be better to live next to a steel mill.”

Sawaya said he does not expect complete cooperation from community members but wants neighbors to know that there is a place on campus dedicated to resolving conflicts.

“Do I think that the office will usher in universal peace and brotherhood? No,” he said. “Do I think there are some individuals, for reasons known only to themselves, that think that GW is less than neighborly? Clearly that’s the case. I hope this will help ease these feelings.”

The office was officially announced at the FRIENDS’s second annual Community Block Party on Oct. 3, where more than 1,000 people attended and 50 vendors and information booths represented local businesses, groups, restaurants and churches.

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