by Gigi Wood
IOWA CITY – The next 12-18 months will be telling for the downtown Iowa City economy.
The downtown economy remains in flux following the November passage of an ordinance that prohibits 19 and 20 year olds in bars after 10 p.m. Before it was passed, 19 and 20 year olds could stay in bars after 10 p.m., creating what many have called a Mardi Gras atmosphere, attracting minors from miles away to downtown’s bars.
“I think there were a lot more people coming to Iowa City to go to the bars than people realize,” said Doug Alberhasky, store manager and bier guy at John’s Grocery, 401 E. Market St.
He was surprised to see keg sales not increase with the change.
“But we got out of that business a long time ago,” he said. “That’s not our thing; we push drinking for taste, not for effect, and they’re drinking for effect.”
John’s Grocery distributes microbrews and other beers to bars along the perimeter of downtown, but not to the large bars in the pedestrian mall. Businesses such as Orchard Green and Stella have seen an increase in business, he said.
“True or not, perception is reality, and if you’re worried about tripping over drunk college kids, you’re not going to go downtown, so I think a lot more adults are going back downtown,” he said.
Since the age change, a number of bars have closed downtown, including the Fieldhouse, One-Eyed Jake’s, Vito’s and 808 Restaurant and Nightclub. Many residents in the community were concerned with an increase in house parties in the neighborhoods near the University of Iowa campus. Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine did not return phone calls by press time seeking comment about the change in parties and crime. Mr. Alberhasky, who lives near John’s Grocery, said the house parties he was concerned about keeping him up at night never happened.
Nick Arnold, executive director of the Downtown Association of Iowa City, which represents more than 70 businesses in town, said December was a great month for retail.
“It’s great news for us and January is going well so far,” he said. “Of course, it’s different for the bars and restaurants. We’ll definitely see a change to the face of downtown. We’ve seen some bars close, and we may see some more.”
Filling downtown, ground-level commercial vacancies has never been difficult, he said, but as some of the larger bars close, various groups will keep a close eye out for the need to recruit outside companies to those spaces.
“The next 12 to 18 months will be very telling,” Mr. Arnold said. “Those spaces may fill on their own, so we might not need to do any recruiting.”
Both men said they would like to see more diversity in downtown businesses. As demand for bar space diminishes, commercial space supply will increase, creating lower rents, Mr. Alberhasky said.
Mayor Matt Hayek said except for one downtown property owner, feedback on the changes since the ordinance passed has been largely positive.
“I’ve heard from a lot of citizens in the community and business owners who think it was the right move and were pleased with the outcome,” he said.
Mr. Hayek, who is an attorney at a downtown law firm, said his business has noticed fewer messes to clean up on the sidewalks in the morning since the change. When he runs errands to nearby businesses, the pedestrian traffic seems the same as before, he said.
Andre Perry, the Englert Theatre’s executive director, also works as a talent buyer at the Mill Restaurant and is the founder of the annual spring Mission Creek Festival. He said that while venues such as the Englert and Mill have special exemptions that allow minors in the businesses until midnight for all-ages music shows, it is difficult to make enough money to pay for the band without alcohol sales.
He said it is critical for the UI to get involved with offering alternative programming for students as an alternative to going to bars.
“When (events and venues) become a part of the culture of the geography of where they live, then it’s not just another university event,” he said. “And I think it makes the University of Iowa more attractive.”
Mr. Perry said he is not taking a vocal role in what the UI and city should do to offer more non-alcohol events for students.
“I try to be involved in it, but it’s tough to be too active because anything I do will probably by nature be self-serving, so I want people to figure it out on their own,” he said. “But I’m not sure those folks know how to make events exciting for students and should probably turn it over to people who do.”
Tom Rocklin, UI’s vice president for student services and recently appointed member of the Englert board of the directors, could not be reached by press time to comment about the school’s programming and alcohol policy-related changes.
Jan Weismiller, co-owner of Prairie Lights, said customer traffic has increased at the bookstore since the bar-entry age change. The bookstore, which closes at 9 p.m., is not affected by the bar traffic, she said.
“We’ve been very busy, so maybe the students are reading rather than drinking,” she said. “I don’t think it (business increase) has anything to do with that (ordinance) though.”
Across the river, The Hungry Hobo sandwich shop, which is now called Timmy Flynn’s Red Pepper Deli & Grill, has not experienced a difference in customer traffic with the bar-entry change.
“We’re not downtown and what we get over here, student-body wise, is mostly everything that’s on this side of the river, medical, dental, law, pharmacy, the athletic department,” said Tim Flynn, owner of the deli. “That hasn’t changed over here.”