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Campustown: Business as balancing act

You may have noticed that Campustown kept her groove going over the summer. Ragstock and Apricot Lane are only a couple of the new additions to this area, and this has been a growing trend in this portion of Champaign-Urbana that might get overlooked when the students are away. And new businesses aren’t just opening: they’re staying open. Unlike previous summers, when some businesses had to close their doors after students fled Chambana, Campustown businesses have experienced an unexpected influx of local residents in recent months.

We had a chance to speak with some of the business owners within Campustown to get their perspective on Summer 2013. Christina Pett, an optician from Illini Eye Care on Green Street, estimates that sales were up 30-40% this past summer in comparison to the past three summers. She says that in addition to cooler weather and an improving economy, Campustown’s usual status as a summertime ghost town changed this year because more local residents took to the streets. “There was a lot more foot traffic from downtown,” says Pett. “People have been wanting to explore the changes to this area since there’s been so much construction around here these past few months.” According to Pett, strollers passing through often end up browsing at glasses frames or making an appointment at her business. 

Even with a steady stream of customers throughout the year, Illini Eye Care, like many other Campustown businesses, saw changes in their customer base over the summer. When undergraduates recede into the wilderness in May, graduate students, university staff, and an increasing number of local residents take over Campustown shops. Jack Zhang, the proprietor of Johnstown General Store on John Street, said that Johnstown changed its business model over the summer to appeal to Chambana’s permanent residents.

Johnstown opened up back in March in the space where Notes & Quotes used to be, and students can still get coursepacks and take care of printing and copying there. But Johnstown’s main concept is a used furniture exchange, where students can buy or sell furniture and other household items. Despite their year-round focus on used items, Zhang — a junior in agricultural and biological engineering at U of I who operates the business with his mother, Xuemei Zhong — says that Johnstown stocked a selection of higher-quality, new furniture over the summer to attract local residents. “It’s a balancing act,” Zhang said. “We want to focus on students during the school year, but we want to appeal to permanent residents once students leave for the summer.”

Johnstown’s seesaw strategy paid off: like many businesses around Campustown, its doors have stayed open, and busy, these last few months.

Even though many students are absent from campus throughout the summer months, the plans for expansion of Campustown has generally been booming. Not only will we see the addition of multiple apartment complexes in the future, but an awesome sandwich joint in Jersey Mike’s along Green Street has been thrown in the mix (We know, who needs another sandwich shop? Seriously though, have you had it yet? Do go try it), but there are plans to build a brand new Marriott Hotel in Parkling Lot J (next to Legends and Chipotle), which will bring even more attention to the Campustown area when its completed.

If you don’t recall this development, the News-Gazette will refresh your memory:

Also Tuesday, the city council approved the final development plan for Parking Lot J at the northwest corner of Sixth and Green streets. The plan calls for two 12-story buildings, including a 108-room Mariott Town Place Suites hotel, retail space, apartment units and a parking garage.

“But what about parking when it is being developed?” you might ask. There will be a parking area beneath the hotel.

“But what about parking near Green Street?” There’s a huge parking garage on Sixth and John that can get easily overlooked and unnoticed.

Granted, that might be a few years from now, but it is certainly worth the discussion in regards to what kind of influx of visitors that will bring to Green Street and the businesses that reside there. That hotel alone will be a place that will find occupants coming for Illini Football and Basketball games, and other events that fill up hotels around Champaign-Urbana in an instant (Homecoming and commencement weekends are nearly impossible to book unless you’re looking the year prior — which sometimes doesn’t get you a head start, either). 

The hotel developments in Downtown Champaign (the Hyatt going in on Neil and Main Street) and Campustown aren’t going to solely be an attracting point for people wanting to visit Champaign-Urbana — our cities attract visitors on their own. Certainly, these new establishments will allow people to visit and be right in the middle of the busiest portions of Champaign though, and enjoy and visit the businesses that surround them.

Certainly, Campustown isn’t going to appeal to a portion of the people who live, work, eat, drink, and shop in Champaign-Urbana, but there will always be students here. Not to mention the friends and parents who visit them. Even though visiting it will most likely be parents booking those hotel rooms, it is a new dynamic to Campustown. They visit the businesses within the area, go grab a burger and a beer at Murphy’s, stop by T.I.S. to buy some Illini gear (another business that reportedly flourished during the summer months, as well as Panera Bread), or X number of other things there are that people want to go do when parents are in town.

Campustown has a lot more to offer than students walking around on their way to class or finding the next watering hole on the weekends — and there’s proof that businesses are wanting to move into the area. Even if they are fast-food burger joints like Wendy’s and more recently, rumblings of another burger joint (although you might be able to guess it with ease) going in the strip between Sixth and Wright on Green, and more to come, it’s looking pretty fresh on that strip of Green.

Article written as a collaboration between Rebecah Pulsifer and Patrick Singer. Top photo by Sean O’Connor, middle photo by Rebecah Pulsifer, and Wright & Green photo by Jess Hammie.

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