I remember when the mall in my hometown was renovated. When it was finally finished, the new stores provided fresh fashions and many possibilities to develop my personal style as I entered into my teenage years. However, as visiting consultant John Millar, Executive Vice President and Principal of Divaris Real Estate in Virginia, talked about the quintessential stores necessary to create a profitable mall, he listed the most prominent stores in my hometown mall. It made me think, were these stores chosen to fit the fashions of my hometown, or did a group of people decide which stores would be in that mall, ultimately determining the fashions that would be popular in my hometown?
Arguably, fashion has little to do with sustainability, but it did make me realize the power that developers and city planners have to impact cities, particularly in making cities sustainable. This past week, I attended a seminar sponsored by a coalition of buesinesses, developers, community members, the University of Iowa, and the City of Iowa City, featuring John Millar, speaking about “The Hidden Economies in College Towns.” Throughout the seminar, Millar discussed some of his development projects that have boosted economic growth in other “college towns” throughout the country. According to his research, demographics often fail to capture certain characteristics of the population in college towns leading to untapped markets for students dependent on parental income and the retiring “baby boom” generation.
So what does this mean for Iowa City and the University of Iowa as we embark on a new era of the 21-ordinance and flood recovery efforts? Considering the UI student population, something that Millar discussed extensively were the types of retail stores and restaurants that young populations expect. In a city known for its home-grown, small businesses, this could present an interesting dilemma regarding the place for national chains and the local businesses we treasure in our community. While Millar stated that the presence of carefully chosen, nationally-recognized businesses would bolster economic growth for all businesses, I sensed some skepticism in the room.
Early in my undergraduate career, I remember times that I wished for certain stores to be in walking distance. However, without a car on campus for my first three years, I quickly discovered how to find everything I needed in the downtown stores. Since I also grew up in Eastern Iowa, I loved discovering new restaurants with my college friends and showing them off to my high school friends when they visited. The unique stores and restaurants give Iowa City so much character, so whatever the future holds, I hope these characteristics continue to define this community.
Making both the University of Iowa and the Iowa City community sustainable as we plan for the future will mean a number of things. While the flood of 2008 reminded us of the natural environment we live in, we know that sustainability goes beyond disaster mitigation. Putting Iowa City on the best course of sustainability will always require pursuing new opportunities to create economic growth, but it must not be at the expense of the unique cultural atmosphere found in our community.