Businesses close, economy hopeful

By Tara Kulash

With a handful of businesses closing in Carbondale recently, some citizens question whether this could be the sign of an economic trend.

Carbondale restaurants such as Mississippi Flyway, El Greco, El Bajio, Whiffle Boys and Spinoni’s all closed within the past year. However, more than 30 businesses have also opened since 2012 such as Chill Yogurt, Maurice’s, Pita Alley, Ross Dress for Less and Bandana’s, which opened Feb. 12.

Meghan Cole, director of Carbondale Main Street, said many businesses close because the owners are ready to retire.

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“These are cyclical things,” she said. “You’re not going to have people who want to be in business until they’re 90 years old.”

City Manager Kevin Baity said he also thinks some businesses close because they don’t change with the times, such as updating menus or décor.

Gary Williams, Carbondale’s economic development coordinator, said he agreed.

“Over the years, the demographics are different,” he said. “The businesses that are doing well here respond to that better.”

Longbranch Coffeehouse is one example of an evolving business. Elaine Ramseyer, the restaurant’s general manager, said her business has done nothing but grow in the past 14 years, from serving coffee and cookies to adding breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.

She said she thinks the restaurant also attracts many customers because it’s vegetarian.

“I’ve continually added more offerings that would grow a business,” she said. “We’re kind of outside what I think is normative for restaurants here, but we also worked really hard to grow.”

Ramseyer, however, shares a concern that many have with The Strip.

“For a college town, The Strip is shameful,” she said.

Compared to when she was a student in the ’70s, Ramseyer said downtown Carbondale is dead. She said she remembers a bigger nightlife scene with more bars.

However, Baity said all but one of the available Class B liquor licenses in Carbondale are in use.

The City Council votes to decide how many Class B liquor licenses are available, and he said there are now 16 licenses. He said the amount of licenses has fluctuated between around 12 and 18 in the past, depending on how many businesses take advantage of them.

Ramseyer said she specifically finds it ridiculous that Halloween was shut down on The Strip.

“New Orleans found a way to deal with Mardi Gras,” she said. “Channel it. Deal with it. Have a band on every corner and cops on bikes. Manage it.”

Ramseyer said she thinks the lack of nightlife has hurt the university’s enrollment. City Councilman Chris Wissmann, however, said he thinks the opposite has happened. He said the enrollment decline has hurt Carbondale businesses. Fall 2012 enrollment was at 18,847 students, which was lower than fall 2011’s 19,817 students.

“A lot of local businesses have been victimized by a university that’s being run very ineffectively,” he said.

A study released in 2011 by the Southern Illinois Research Park found that for every $1 appropriated by the state to SIU, it generates approximately $2.90 of economic activity in southern Illinois.

The university’s declining enrollment means fewer student customers, he said. At the same time, current students have less buying power than generations before, as tuition and fees rise yearly.

“There was a time when you didn’t really have to be a good businessperson to do well in Carbondale,” Wissmann said. “Now, the number of students has dipped to the point that even very good business people have to struggle to survive.”

Yet, Steve Payne, owner of Quatro’s, said he has only seen Carbondale grow since he started running the restaurant in 1976. He said there was less than half the amount of businesses in the ’70s compared to now.

He said one reason The Strip doesn’t seem as vibrant as it used to is because students don’t like to walk anymore; they prefer to drive.

“If you’re a Strip business that has little parking and your model was built in a day when walking traffic was your main economic engine, and all of a sudden now it’s not, you don’t have any ability to conform to that,” Payne said.

Businesses with a lot of parking space, such as Pinch and Cali’s, will typically have more student customers, he said.

Lance Jack, a City Council member and the owner of Fat Patties restaurant, made a similar observation.

“Humans are lazy,” he said.

Downtown Carbondale has quite a bit of parking, Jack said, but many assume it doesn’t. He said Americans have a mentality that every business should have a drive-thru, so many will visit McDonald’s, Arby’s or any other fast food restaurant out of convenience instead of a smaller restaurant.

Still, he said, downtown Carbondale has its fair share of visitors.

“People that appreciate locally owned businesses and restaurants know that Carbondale is a place to come experience that,” Jack said. “They know that there’s a large population in Carbondale that puts great value in locally owned and unique items.”

However, Cole said the city’s chain businesses also help the economy.

“You need a balance,” she said. “Any urban area or any area, you need anchors.”

For example, she said, a Target becomes an anchor if it is built because several small businesses pop up around it.

Les O’Dell, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said he agreed.

“I think any new business is beneficial to the community,” he said.

He said a few businesses may have closed in the past six months, but just as many have opened.

Jackson County has the lowest unemployment rate out of its surrounding counties, and Carbondale has the lowest unemployment rate in Jackson County.

Baity said the city has also seen a slight rise in sales tax revenues.

Pita Alley, a Mediterranean restaurant in the Murdale shopping center, opened 11 weeks ago. Oguz Unver, the operations manager, said he has had double the amount of customers than he expected. He said there isn’t really a rush hour because the business is consistently busy.

“People were craving something like this,” Unver said.

He said the restaurant hasn’t had advertised yet, so it’s relied mostly on word-of-mouth.

Justin Zurlinden, owner of Vintage Soul, opened his coffee and used furniture hybrid shop a little more than a year ago. He said he’s noticed business is better in August when students move in and need furniture as well as in May, when he receives a lot of furniture donations from students who move out of their Carbondale homes.

Zurlinden said he expected to sell more coffee and less furniture, but sales have been in the opposite directions. He said he actually sells more furniture than coffee.

“That’s made us have to adapt to what people are looking for,” he said. “This town’s small businesses just have to figure out what people want and cater to that.”

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