Retailers share mixed reactions

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – For most retailers who run shops in downtown Iowa City during the day, it’s too early to tell whether recent city ordinances will affect sales.

At the start of June, the city enacted a ban on smoking in the pedestrian mall, a reduction in the panhandling area and changed the bar-entry age from 19 to 21 after 10 p.m. Smoking is still allowed in the alleyways of the pedestrian mall, there is a designated pathway for panhandlers through the middle of the pedestrian mall and several restaurants have received exemptions from the bar-entry age ordinance.

Matthew Theobald, manager of the Soap Opera, 119 E. College St. in the pedestrian mall, said the new ordinances have not had a huge impact on downtown yet.

“It’s way too early to have much of an impact. It’s impossible to evaluate this early,” he said.

Two years ago, he reported that the pedestrian mall became a ghost town during the flood because so many roads were closed off. Then the economy soured. His business is finally showing some signs of renewed life, he said.

“This is the first month our sales have stabilized and I think we’re going to be up for the month for the first time in two years. I don’t know if you can relate that to the economy or the weather or people saying things might improve downtown,” Mr. Theobald said.

There is one unexpected plus, he said.

“We’re very pro the 21 thing; we think the (bar and overconsumption of alcohol) situation is really out of hand,” he said. “On the upside, I haven’t had vomit in my entryway. That would be a weekly occurrence or twice weekly of vomit and urine in the entryway, and we haven’t had a single incidence of that since the ordinances went into effect. So that’s probably the first bonus.”

He said there has also been less vandalism outside the store, but that could be attributed to an increased police presence in the pedestrian mall.

“A lot of (downtown businesses) don’t have the daily impact that we have. We get our windows broken and things like that, but that’s during the evening and Iowa City is always a pleasant place to come in the summer,” Mr. Theobald said. “When your business district is your highest crime rate, there’s something wrong.”

A few doors down, at the Sheraton Iowa City Hotel, management has received little to no feedback from guests on the changes.

“The real impact will come when the students come back in the fall. Right now, during the summer it’s really quiet,” said Matt Traetow, Sheraton’s director of sales.

The hotel earlier this year closed its interior walkway down at night to the public. Before that change, hotel management often complained to the city of noise, fights and vandalism in the walkway.

“With us closing the concourse down, that really slowed the traffic through the hotel. We felt the impact at that point,” he said.

Further north in the pedestrian mall, the plaza is quieter, said Rita Jain, owner of Textiles, 109 S. Dubuque St.

“It seems calmer outside the store, and I don’t know if that’s the new laws or if we’re having nicer weather. It definitely seems calmer to me,” she said.

Sales were up in April, May and June over the previous year, which she hopes continues. Customers have not mentioned the changes downtown yet, she said.

“A lot of our customers in the summer are people from out of town who don’t know the normal experience downtown. I had complaints before everything happened with people being harassed by panhandlers and such,” Ms. Jain said. “But I haven’t had anybody say anything yet (since the changes).”

City Councilor Terry Dickens, who is a co-owner of Herteen and Stocker Jewelers, 101 S. Dubuque St. said he has noticed a difference downtown. He voted in favor of the changes.

“It’s much cleaner, much quieter and I noticed that more people are actually using it, sitting out with their computers, reading. It’s kind of a nice change,” he said. “There’s not as much trash left every morning. I’d come in and we used to have to go out and pick it up and we haven’t had to do that. So overall, I’d say it’s been a big plus.”

Although the summers are slower for the jewelry store, employees would still clean up vomit and vandalism in June and July.

“We haven’t had any since June 1 when the bars went 21,” Mr. Dickens said.

Around the corner, Joni Schrup, owner of Discerning Eye, 119 E. Washington St., said she personally enjoys the pedestrian mall more since the changes, but her customers have not expressed an opinion.

For me, just walking through the ped mall during the day, I think it’s a little more user-friendly,” she said. “We don’t have a bar on our side of the street so we don’t have problems (with vandalism and vomit). I have noticed fewer cigarette butts to sweep up in the morning.”

Catherine Champion, who owns Catherine’s boutique at 7 S. Dubuque St. and Catherine’s Cheap and Chic, 105 S. Dubuque St., said she has not noticed a change at Catherine’s and is unsure about changes at Cheap and Chic.

“Honestly I’ve noticed nothing,” she said.

A petition was filed in opposition to the bar-entry age change; residents will vote on the issue in November.