Consultants help Iowa City diversity downtown


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The Summit used to be a Lands’ End clothing store. A Hardee’s once served burgers where Brothers Bar & Grill sits. And a luggage shop occupied the site of what is now bring-your-own-food establishment Pints.

But these vendors — like much of downtown’s business diversity — are gone.

That’s why Iowa City officials say they are working with consultants from the University of Northern Iowa to assess which businesses can succeed downtown. They’ve invested $45,000 for a feasibility study, whose results are due by the end of this month.

“We’re trying to look at what is most appropriate for downtown Iowa City,” said Wendy Ford, the city’s economic-development coordinator. “The next step is to put a plan together and make it work.”

Consultants from Northern Iowa’s Regional Business Center will recommend the types of businesses that might succeed and how the city can attract them using a business-incubation program — “an economic-development tool designed to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurial companies through an array of support resources and services,” according to the group’s website.

The program has worked with downtown Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

Iowa City’s desire to further assess the market stems from a 2007 analysis that indicated the downtown needed more diversity. The 192-page report then cited an “oversupply” of bars as one of the top challenges vexing the area.

The reason? Many point to the exodus that followed Coral Ridge Mall opening in 1998.

“We didn’t have a huge number of bars like we do now,” former Iowa City Mayor Ernie Lehman said. “Things started to deteriorate downtown.”

With many of the stores — including Lehman’s shop, Enzler’s — leaving, several bars moved in to fill the vacancies. The year the mall opened, the number of venues serving alcohol downtown was 27.

By 2005, the number jumped to 43, according to data former UI Provost Peter Nathan compiled in a study of alcohol accessibility near campus.

Ford cited the Northern Iowa collaboration, inked in a contract on Nov. 17, 2009, as a possible avenue toward remedying the bar density. Any developments after the 2007 study were largely hindered by the 2008 flood, she said.

“You want to have a downtown that is vibrant day and night,” Ford said.

The City Council’s recent move to make bars 21-only after 10 p.m. has many others wondering how the city may adapt.

Some local bar owners have expressed concern about dwindling revenue eventually forcing them to close their tavern doors. The new 21-ordinance will become effective June 1; citizens can push it onto the November ballot with 2,500 signatures.

“I won’t make it till November,” said Marty Maynes, the owner of Union Bar, at a March 29 City Council meeting. “I don’t have any delusions of grandeur about staying in business that long.”

If his bar closes, an ordinance that restricts where drinking establishments can open may prevent another alcohol-only watering hole from taking its place. The implications of that 500-foot rule, effective last July, have yet to be seen.

Other bar employees, such as Tom Lenoch, have said they are not too concerned.

“I’m not afraid of anything different,” he said. As general manager of Jakes, the Summit, and Vito’s, he said, he will likely just have to change his marketing strategy to target an older crowd.

One thing that is certain? The future for many bars is uncertain.

“Business climates change — it happens whether you make toothbrushes, cut hair, or sell beer,” Ford said.

At least one city official said he hopes to see fewer selling the latter.

City Councilor Mike Wright said he wants more venues that aren’t “alcohol-driven.”

Though he is skeptical about returning to a retail-oriented, pre-Coral Ridge Mall downtown, he said, he’s heard residents express a desire for more diversity.

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