Councilors to discuss empty storefronts


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City officials said they’re ready to organize efforts to fill Iowa City’s empty stores in the wake of the closure of four downtown bars.

“As long as I’ve lived here, there has not been a vacant building downtown for very long,” Iowa City City Councilor Connie Champion said Wednesday. “Large spaces like bars are difficult to deal with because of size.”

Councilor Susan Mims said Mayor Matt Hayek has discussed scheduling a work session to address the recent vacancies downtown.

Though the council has not yet set a date for the work session, Champion said councilors will discuss strategies to attract desirable businesses and help facilitate the use of those larger spaces in a way that is beneficial to the downtown.

But City Manager Tom Markus said landlords are ultimately in charge of securing tenants for vacant spaces downtown.

“In my view, I think we need to start bringing in more retail to support the existing retail that’s already there,” Markus said.

Markus said he hopes to achieve a balance among retail, entertainment, dining, offices, and residential spaces in the area. He referred to this balance as a “critical mass” and said he expected such a mix of businesses to jointly advertise and benefit together.

In the meantime, improving the maintenance of the downtown is another priority, he said.

“It’s not unlike what a mall does,” Markus said about rejuvenating and maintaining downtown.

For the Old Capitol Town Center, vacant commercial space has also been a problem.

University of Iowa junior Amber Peterson worked at Express in the mall for five months before it closed on Jan. 26.

“It kind of happened really fast,” she said, noting that she and other employees were told not to talk about specific reasons for the closure.

In the end, Peterson’s bosses transferred her to the Express store at Coral Ridge Mall, she said.
Kevin Digmann, the general manager of the mall, speculated Express closed because the chain store’s sales had fallen below a certain level and the company has seen more business at its Coral Ridge location.

Despite this new vacancy, Digmann said the mall is about 97 percent leased. In 2003, only 35 percent of the location was leased. Mall officials are talking to potential tenants to take the place of Express, Digmann said.

Though city officials will focus on empty bar spaces at their coming work session, some UI students said losing Express — one of the few national chain stores downtown — has left a hole in the area’s retail.

“That was the only real store in the mall,” said UI sophomore Amanda Schmidt.

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