Officials: independent businesses key for downtown IC retail

BY ALY BROWN | JULY 06, 2012 6:30 AM

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Though Coralville is poised to transcend Iowa City in retail sales for the first time, city residents and officials say the Iowa City downtown will remain a unique destination for consumers.

Several downtown business owners and students say that thedowntown should maintain its unique vibe, and at least one city official said there may be room for national brands to enter the mix.

Cortnie Widen, the owner of independent store White Rabbit, said downtown Iowa City will thrive if more independently run stores find centrally located venues.

"I think that [downtown] should maintain its independent-store vibe," she said. "But where that is difficult is that the rents are so high downtown."

Widen said new business owners looking to set up shop don't have experimental venues such as the Hall Mall, which housed such stores as Beadology, Connexion, and White Rabbit as fledgling stores.

With the construction of Von Maur and Costco, and the Coral Ridge Mall's ever-expanding store base, Coralville's retail market is booming. According to the Iowa Department of Revenue Iowa Retail Sales and Use Tax Report, Coralville earned roughly $722 million in fiscal 2011, compared with $696 million in the previous year. Iowa City raked in roughly $741 million in fiscal 2011, up from $725 million the previous fiscal year.

Geoff Fruin, the assistant to the city manager of Iowa City, said Johnson County's economy has proven resilient through the recession.

"While market conditions play a predominant role in the growth of the retail industry, cities must also ensure that they are creating an environment that fosters growth and reinvestment," he wrote in an email. "Iowa City is cognizant of this need, and we are actively working to support and build our retail base."

Fruin said officials are working to improve public infrastructure downtown to cultivate a vibrant district that appeals to a wide range of shoppers, while working with building owners to increase the marketability of their property.

"We want [to] encourage an entrepreneurial environment that supports small-business development and growth, but [we] also feel there is a role for complementary national brands," he wrote in an email.

This attitude reflects the results of the 2007 market niche analysis that suggests a focus on unique apparel, local artisan and crafters, and specialty goods with a mix of locally owned shops and regional or national chains growing in Iowa. The analysis also cites Coralville's aggressive commercial expansion as a top challenge, in addition to high downtown retail rent and lack of available space.

University of Iowa senior Anthony Kuzmanic said he would like to see even more independent businesses lining the Pedestrian Mall.

"It's better for the community," he said. "Supporting local businesses is better than supporting large corporate chains."

But UI senior Taylor Cronbaugh disagreed, saying the district could use bigger brands.

"I really liked it when they had an Express downtown," she said.

Nialle Sylvan, the owner of the Haunted Bookshop, said Iowa City would attract more consumers by improving its character neighborhoods and assisting new business owners.

"Watch while Iowa City becomes not the hub where locals go to get deals on national products, but the hub where the nation comes to find unique experiences …" she said. "It may seem counterintuitive, but that is a recipe for paradise of the kind people just won't find in many other places. Build it, and they will come."

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