Verhasselt: Explore motivations behind Campustown renovations

Heath Verhasselt

Class got out, it was Friday and I had no plans until later. Around me was the hustle and bustle that is a Friday afternoon. Buses are full; cars driving down Lincoln Way. With nothing to do, I went for a walk through Campustown. Hungry, of course I grabbed a drink and sub from Jimmy John’s and was on my way. As I walked around, I noticed that there really wasn’t much open that intrigued me besides the few restaurants. I didn’t need my hair cut, nor did I want a tatoo, so I continued on.

Walking down Lincoln way, I got to Mayhem Comics. I’ve been there before, I knew what to expect when I walked in: comics and other collectibles from the ground up. Two floors of products such as Star Wars collectibles, to Superman comics and to Warhammer miniatures. I notice a TV with “Star Wars: A New Hope” playing in the background, this was a geek’s dream.

I hear someone ask, “Can I help you find something?” It was the store’s owner, Rob Josephson, and being curious about local business owner’s opinions and other city of Ames gossip, I asked him about LANE4. What took place was quite the conversation.

He first brought up the issue that the only contact that has been made between his business and LANE4 was a form letter. “A bulldozer without a driver,” as he referred to it. “A group with a lot of ideas and no follow up” and he called the meetings they’ve had with local businesses and the city as “ambiguous”. These statements, although they seem aggressive, are made not only out of anger, but out of frustration.

Josephson was disappointed with the lack of cooperation and input from the local businesses. “In battle, you don’t talk to the general, you go out to the front and talk to the soldier. We’re on the front lines, we know Campustown.”

Josephson was even more concerned with the economics of it all. “The current rent in Campustown is about $10-$18 per square foot of space, many are speculating that the price could go up to around $30 per square foot, and we just can’t afford that and would be forced to leave Campustown.”

He pointed out that the lack of “big name” anchor was concerning. “Ruby Tuesday was mentioned as a possible restaurant, how can students even afford to eat at these higher end restaurants? The Campustown you see today is post-Towers demolition. When there were more people living out at the Towers, the foot traffic in campustown was a lot higher and restaurants such as McDonald’s and Burger King thrived as people were just passing through. Families would come into Campustown after football games and eat at McDonald’s, it’s completely different now.”

Josephson then took the conversation into a different level entirely. He started asking the questions, the tough questions. “There have been talks about changing Campustown for the last 40 years — what’s the reason now?”

“Why is Iowa State even involved in this discussion? They don’t even own Campustown. The city of Ames has no idea what’s going on down here. The proposed parking ramp was the first step in the right direction, parking is terrible down here, this way we can bring more people into Campustown.”

He went on, “What are the true motives here? Profit? Those are the questions to ask.” And he’s right. What are the true motives? Of course ISU would love to have a nice Campustown to go with its campus, for both appearance to outsiders and visitors and to keep enrollment up. But what else?

Why do the plans include Iowa State having 45,000 square feet of offices? Tax incentives? Guaranteed rent for the worst case scenario: when the rest of their businesses flop?

Jospehson pointed out that therea are only two retail stores in campustown right now: his comic store and Grandma’s Attic. Mayhem has been in business for 21 years and have seen other retail stores come and go. Why would a higher end retail store thrive in a market that has clearly forced other businesses out?

Josephson brought up one of the best points so far, “Campustown needs to be treated as its own entity. The way the city of Ames is treating their small businesses is disappointing. Instead of essentially buying out Campustown for the dirt it sits on, why not give the local businesses that are already here tax breaks and loans to improve what’s already here? Campustown is something that should be treated with care.”

He mentioned how private businesses own and run campustown, not the city of Ames, not LANE4, not the university.

Josephson made one last point, “The Iowa City Old Capitol Mall is now devoid of chain stores and large retail stores. Same thing could be happening here.” And that’s where I leave you, do you really want to follow in the steps of “those people” in Iowa City? This is Ames, this is our Campustown, and we decide with our dollars what stays and what goes.