Expert: College towns should attract big-name retail stores


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College towns should try to attract big-name retail stores and encourage mixed-use structures — though, an expert in college town economies admits there’s no formula for complete success.

John Millar, the executive vice president of Divaris Real Estate in Virginia Beach, Va., as well as an expert in economic development, spoke Wednesday to roughly 60 members of the Iowa City community on the “hidden economy” of college towns.

“I’m looking at why [college towns] don’t have the retail you deserve,” Millar said.

Iowa City officials have long wanted to diversify downtown businesses. And several recently closed bars have left vacant storefronts in the area after the 21-ordinance was upheld in November.

Millar said large chain stores and restaurants tend to pass over student-heavy areas because of several misconceptions. They may misjudge the affluence of today’s students and look at census data for the community, which tend to underestimate the average income.

Retailers also fail to take into account the economic effect visitors to college towns can have. A recent study showed visitors to Iowa City on football weekends spend an average of $944.

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People spend about $200 billion each year in college markets, and the average college student spends more than $13,000 each year, according to a 2002 360 Youth/Harris Interactive College Explorer Study Millar cited.

Working to draw these businesses will ultimately benefit the town, he said.

Iowa City economic coordinator Wendy Ford said the opportunity for Millar to speak was ideal to “keep the conversation rolling” between the community, the university, and local businesses.

“It provides an opportunity to think about how the downtown can and should change,” she said.

Millar talked about opportunities the college towns have in regards to retail business and mixed-use venues — a collaboration of housing and commercial buildings.

“Across the country, there are a lot more public/private partnerships going on,” said UI business manager George Hollins, who invited Millar to speak in Iowa City after hearing him at a university officials’ realty meeting.

And with projects such as Hieronymus Square, which will house part of the School of Music along with condominiums and office space, the university is also establishing such partnerships.

Ford, who has spent most of her life in Iowa City, said the current collaboration and efforts among the multiple stakeholders in Iowa City — largely sparked by recent natural disasters and common problems — has been the most she has seen.

Ford said besides downtown, the city’s top priority, officials are focusing on the Towncrest urban renewal, Industrial Park, and Riverfront Crossing.

John Solow, a UI associate professor of economics, said that over the past few years, urban cities such as Iowa City have been increasingly drawing in more and more people because of a shift in the type of industry — an “information economy.”

One community member, Monica Moen, a local attorney and Iowa City community member at the lecture, said she has a vested interest as well as an emotional interest in Iowa City and felt good about the presentation.

“We do have good bones,” Moen said, referring to Millar’s description of the city. “Now let’s put nice flesh on those bones.”

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