George Mason University student officials said more business promotion, entertainment venues and overall acknowledgement of the university next door could help attract more students to downtown Fairfax.
Council members and student officials met Tuesday night at the Fairfax campus to discuss ways in which the city and university could partner to bring more of the university's on-campus population into the city limits.
"A lot of people don't want to see Fairfax become what they envision a 'college town' is," Student Body President Alex Williams said. "Factually speaking, Fairfax City is a college town. What does [that term] mean to Fairfax City?"
Williams cited the University of Virginia and Charlottesville as an example. He said that when in Charlottesville there's no question that UVA is right next door.
"How does that translate to Fairfax City?" Williams said. "I'm not saying 'let's replicate what Charlottesville does,' but I think the act of embracing it helps. Don't be shy that there's a university right here. But don't lose the city's identity."
Some of those gathered at the meeting had suggestions.
Council member Jeff Greenfield said city officials plan to post markers at every major avenue leading into the City of Fairfax that say "Welcome to Mason Nation."
Student officials also suggested using Mason student discounts and Mason Money to attract students. According to Mayor Scott Silverthorne, only 20 Fairfax City businesses currently accept Mason Money, a prepaid debit service offered by the university.
They also recommended opening more of a variety of businesses that appeal to those under 21 and international students. Hookah bars in downtown Fairfax, they said, would attract the younger students who aren't of drinking age and may appeal to Mason's international crowd. An entertainment venue, like a movie theater, would help as well.
"We realize now that an entertainment attraction is critical for our downtown," Silverthorne said. "Restaurants seem to be working, retail struggles. I think we need to find our niche but we're not exactly sure what that is."
Council member David Meyer suggested a formalized program between the city and university that would create internship opportunities for students within the city limits. The students countered with a 'Just for Fairfax' job fair idea.
But even with those changes, city officials and the university need to find a way to inform the student body of opportunities for work and play in Fairfax, Williams said.
Student officials suggested getting the word out through student media, like Broadside, and advertising in the Johnson Center, the university's student center.
Or businesses could take a more direct approach. Williams recounted a night at the beginning of the school year when a local Target bused students from campus to the store and offered student-only discounts, giveaways and music. They hired student interns to act as human advertisements, generating excitement for the promotional night.
Williams said the Target promotion hit on two key points that the City of Fairfax should consider: It was accessible to students and it offered a monetary benefit.
"I'm going to eat food. I'm going to shop. I'm going to buy things. Is there a benefit to doing that in Fairfax City?" Williams said.