Jerome Benner believes in the power of a good cup of joe. But rarely will you see him enjoying that java alone.
The new director of neighborhood and community relations at the University of St. Thomas, Benner is often found at nearby coffee shops in conversation with neighbors, city leaders and campus stakeholders. Tasked with serving as the voice of St. Thomas and promoting the university to area residents, he’s spent the last few months getting to know the community one handshake at a time.
“Connecting with people on a personal level is the most important tool I have in my toolbox,” Benner said.
Those connections with the neighboring community are particularly important right now. Benner’s arrival coincides with a remarkable era of growth at the St. Paul-based institution.
Just days before his official start date in February 2023, St. Thomas announced plans for the Lee and Penny Anderson Arena – the future home of Tommie hockey and basketball. Work continues developing a new site for baseball and softball fields. And construction is nearly complete on the Schoenecker Center – the university’s long-planned STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) complex.
The list of high-profile projects is a long one and each impacts the community in a unique way.
“There are so many great things in the pipeline at St. Thomas – you can feel the excitement on campus,” Benner said. “But as we grow as a university, we have to be mindful that change is challenging.”
A seasoned urban planner, Benner specializes in bringing people together. He spent years as a city of Saint Paul zoning inspector, coordinating projects of all sizes – from simple garage expansions to multimillion-dollar apartment complexes. More recently, he served as senior planner at the Metropolitan Council, collaborating with stakeholders from across the region to grow the Twin Cities in smart, consistent ways.
Through it all, he’s navigated a variety of challenges, neighborhood support and concerns. And while not all projects can please all parties, he’s found that being an active listener is a good starting point.
“This is a difficult job because you’re dealing with people and their emotions,” Benner said. “I think people appreciate what I bring to the table because I’m willing to listen. I’m willing to have those tough conversations… and then set expectations on how we can grow together.”
Of course, the university’s growth isn’t the only thing on the plate of this neighborhood liaison. He also serves as an important link between neighbors and the university students who live off campus. Part peacemaker, part counselor of sorts, the role can be a delicate balancing act as issues arise.
Amy McDonough, chief of staff for the president’s office, said Benner is off to a great start.
“St. Thomas is dedicated to being a good neighbor. That requires that we not only listen to what’s happening in the neighborhood and communicate with neighbors, but also advocate for our students living in the neighborhood,” McDonough said. “Jerome is already striking the right balance.”
A longtime Highland Park resident, Benner has early memories of attending football games at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. He also has plenty of family members who have graduated from St. Thomas. But he’s excited to have joined the Tommie community himself (and take advantage of a short commute to his office in Aquinas Hall).
One of his biggest goals is to better promote the vast and varied opportunities that come with living near campus. From art exhibits to the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning, Benner is hoping more residents explore inside the Arches. This summer, Benner invited neighbors to a Pollinator Path walking tour, showing off campus landscaping designed to support bees, butterflies and other insects.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges for me – how do I plug into the existing opportunities that we have on campus – from the new STEAM complex to guest speakers – and bring in the rest of the community,” Benner said. “I want to be that convenor who brings people together.”
Bringing people together requires an open dialogue. And Benner is quick to hand out his phone number and email address. He also encourages neighbors to stop by his office. But, in reality, he’d probably prefer to meet over a cup of coffee.
“John Ireland has a quote that says, ‘We’re not in the community, we’re of the community’ and that’s something that really resonates with me,” Benner said. “I want to understand where people are coming from, so that we can all move forward together.”