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City Council should look to student-centered businesses to strengthen downtown

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 13, 2010 7:30 AM

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As Iowa City officials consult with experts from the Northern Iowa Regional Business Center on how to diversify downtown, we will again offer what should be obvious business advice.

Don’t forget the largest city’s bloc of potential customers — the University of Iowa students who populate the neighborhoods close to downtown and frequent the Pedestrian Mall.

Pursuing such an agenda would have a number of positive effects. For councilors who are often seen as anti-student, it would be a constructive, concrete gesture toward students. Many, including Councilor Mike Wright, are looking for businesses that aren’t “alcohol-driven.” And from the pro-21-ordinance council’s vantage point, increasing nonalcohol alternatives downtown would undoubtedly bolster any positive effects of the 21-ordinance.

In addition, the City Council would do Iowa City’s economy and UI students a service by coaxing entrepreneurs to cater to students — not just high-end boutiques customers.

The consultants will recommend a business-incubator scheme for Iowa City. For the layperson, a business incubator is a scheme in which an organization subsidizes a fledgling business through a variety of means, such as reduced rent or free Internet. Business incubators offer a way for local governments to carefully direct business development in a particular area.

“From the council’s perspective, a business incubator is a way to try to bring a diversity of businesses downtown,” said Lynn Allendorf, the managing director of the UI Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “The city would like to get more people working in downtown Iowa City.

[Officials] think if more people are employed downtown, more businesses will come.”

While we question the wisdom of hiring consultants for a price tag of $45,000, we also back the council’s efforts to attract new businesses to the area. And city officials shouldn’t overlook the economic boon that student-focused businesses could provide.

If councilors wish to rid the community of “problematic” bars while still attracting students to Iowa City, then the community must be willing to provide incentives for retailers downtown. By doing so, Iowa City would entice potential UI students who would contribute to the Iowa City economy with their disposable incomes.

And once the nascent businesses begin seeing profits, the council should ensure they don’t leave downtown for cheaper rent or chase customers elsewhere. Again, they can do this by focusing on strengthening businesses that attract student consumption — for their success, our entertainment, and the livelihood of downtown Iowa City.

So what might a more student-centric downtown look like?

Well a sizable movie theater, for starters. And how about bringing another sporting-goods store downtown that carried a larger selection of sporting equipment and the like — not just apparel. Also, wouldn’t a full Apple Store (not just the selection of Apple products in the bookstore) bring loads of student traffic, as well as Mac addicts in droves from around the area?

As the Editorial Board has previously argued, the reason non-bar downtown businesses failed — and the bars then took their place — is the Coral Ridge Mall offered more plentiful and affordable shopping. This drove residents and students to spend their money there, rather than downtown. The Coral Ridge Mall effect hasn’t subsided. But, with the right incentives for businesses, councilors could still midwife a vibrant downtown that students would find likable not just for the bars, but the shops.


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