Varsity’s departure leaves a hole on the Strip

By Gus Bode

Less foot traffic leaves businesses hesitant about the future

Outside Dairy Queen on the Strip, the usual sights and sounds of a muggy summer evening still abound – children slurping hot fudge sundaes, husbands and wives laughing over banana splits on the curb and dogs trying to lap up anything extra that might fall to the ground.

However, according to manager Mark Waicukauski, one thing makes this summer a little different from the others – there’s more parking.

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That’s because patrons of the Varsity Theater, who used to clog Dairy Queen’s parking lot on their way to a night show, have had to park elsewhere to take in a flick in the wake of the theater’s closing last month.

The extra parking, Waicukauski says, is a nice perk. As for the other effects the now-empty theater has had on his business or will in the future, it’s not an emptiness he looks forward to.

“[The Varsity] is one of the few things that brought students downtown,” Waicukauski said of the effects of the theater’s absence. “In summer, when it’s warm, the hurt on us won’t be so big. But as it gets cooler, who knows what will happen?”

Waicukauski’s sentiments have been reflected by business owners up and down the Strip who say that, while the theater’s departure hasn’t necessarily wrought disaster upon their own establishments, it has created a noticeable decline in customers. Much of it, they say, is the decline in foot traffic, a problem that has been frequently spoken of on the Strip during the past several years.

For the most part, students are finding fewer reasons to go downtown, and with the departure of the Varsity, there are no major entertainment venues left in the neighborhood to keep students coming.

“There has been some impact on us,” said Chris Burson, a manager at Booby’s Submarine Sandwiches, located directly north of the Varsity. “People used to come to the bar or the beer garden before a show or come and have a sandwich afterward. The general loss is that there’s just not as much foot traffic.”

However, this is not an issue unique to Carbondale, according to Roxanne Conley, program director for Carbondale Main Street. In fact, towns all across the country have been forced to deal with the departure of historic movie theaters that served as anchors for their downtown area.

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According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, fewer than 300 throughout the nation are still showing films, and many that aren’t, such as Murphysboro’s Liberty Theater, have found ways to adapt themselves to other uses.

Conley said adaptation of some sort is imperative for Carbondale’s Strip to remain lucrative for businesses.

“Anytime you lose a business downtown, it’s going to hurt,” Conley said. “If you look at downtowns across the country, the old theaters are leaving. It’s just something you have to change with. Carbondale just has to be ready to meet the challenges.”

And meeting challenges of a similar nature is nothing new to some business owners on the Strip. Tom North, who manages Book World, 823 S. Illinois Ave., has watched his business change dramatically in the past few years as two major anchors located within the same shopping center, Discount Den and Plaza Records, left due to closing or relocation. He said his business has survived and continues to do well, but the effects were more than noticeable.

“It definitely brought less people to the area,” North said of the two stores’ departures. “We’re still doing business, but the record store did draw a good number of people. There’s been a negative impact.”

But Conley points out that, contrary to popular thought, the Strip is not necessarily dying. In fact, Harbaugh’s Caf, located just south of Book World, and 710 Bookstore are both planning to expand their businesses, and two new restaurants are slated to open on the north end of the Strip.

Even North asserts that it’s ludicrous to imagine that an area so close to campus will become a “no-man’s land.”

Other business owners, such as Anita Pate, are of the same school of thought. Pate, who has operated McClelland’s Bistro in Murphysboro for the past three years, plans to open an offshoot of that business later this summer at 100 S. Illinois Ave., the same location that has housed Pacific Rim Caf and Furniture& More in recent years.

Despite the short stay those businesses had, Pate said she is confident that hers will be successful because it offers unique food and appeals to a customer base she already knows exists in Carbondale and even in Marion.

“It doesn’t concern me,” Pate said of her chances on the Strip. “Our evening business has always been from Carbondale and Marion. We’ll be able to draw people from a large area.

“Business is in decline everywhere, but people still eat out.”

But, despite optimism from many business owners, others, such as Waicukauski, recognize the void that was left when the lights on the Varsity’s marquee went out for the final time. The theater filled an important place on the Strip, he said, and he is hopeful that some way can be found to fill the building with some other kind of enterprise.

Of course, he’s happy to see so many parking spots freed up right next to his business. However, the longer they stay empty, the more hesitant he is about what the future might bring.

“We’ll have to find a way,” Waicukauski said. “I just hope they don’t have an empty building sitting there.”

Reporter Geoffrey Ritter can be reached at [email protected]

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