In Iowa City, when students leave locals emerge

For businesses, it can mean a dip in sales, but for local residents it also creates an opportunity to see what's new in downtown

Published: December 30 2013 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:25 am in
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Having never been to downtown Iowa City's Nodo cafe, Erin Niles took a few minutes to review the menu before choosing lunch: an artichoke chicken sandwich.

Most any other time, a hungry line of people would have hurried her along during the midday rush, but during winter break the pressure is off.

"Everything is easier," said Niles, 21, an Iowa City native who is back visiting from Madison, Wis. "We don't have all the students. We don't have to wait. We don't have lines."

A noticeable exodus occurs in this college town when the 31,000-student University of Iowa goes on its month-long winter break. For businesses, it can mean a dip in sales, but it also creates an opportunity for local residents that typically avoid the hustle of downtown when class is in session. 

"The locals come out and parking is a little easier," said Eric McDowell, who treated his son to a white chocolate steamed milk and donut at the quieter-than-usual downtown Java House on Friday.

Foot traffic from the students, staff and faculty of the university, which is intertwined with downtown, typically keeps a fast, vibrant pace.

During break, lines shorten. Parking opens up. Walk-in seating can be found at popular restaurants. There's smaller crowds and less waiting while running errands to the bank, the grocery store or post office, particularly downtown. 

Chris O'Brien, Iowa City transportation services director, said the 3,000 parking spaces in the five downtown parking ramps are 95-98 percent full from mid-mornings until mid-afternoons. On Friday afternoon, the ramps were 45-50 percent full, he said.

"We joke, 'not only can you find parking outside, you can find a place to sit inside,'" said Kate Crohn, manager of the Java House on Washington Street.

Even certain types of crime goes down. 

Iowa City Police Sgt. Brian Krei said some offenses such as burglaries or domestic assaults aren't impacted, but some crime activity, particularly connected to night life, decreases during winter break.

"It's not just students that leave town," Krei said. "Professors leave town on vacation. There's a lot fewer people around this time of year."

The increase in local customer traffic helps, and some sectors such as financial planning, fitness studios and travel agents report a bit of bump. But many local businesses make adjustments, such as staffing down and reducing hours of operation during the break, which this school year runs from Dec. 20 to Jan. 21.

Iowa Book, located in downtown Iowa City across the street from the central part of UI campus, sees business drop about 50 percent in the week after Christmas compared to October. This comes after one of the busiest times of the year during graduation weekend, which was Dec. 21-22.

"After Christmas, we get very slow," owner Peter Vanderhoef said.

Vanderhoef said during break they use a third fewer staff and close two hours early on weekdays — 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Nodo northside is closing three hours early through the end of break, and Nodo downtown is opening an hour later. Nodo owner Bryan Asklof estimated his northside cafe is 30 to 40 percent slower than normal right now.

"You have to be more aware of your bills when cash flow isn't as high as it normally is," Asklof said. "This is definitely our slowest month of the year. By the end of February things pick up again."

Despite the falloff in business, there's plenty of silver linings.

Crohn at Java House said they get a chance to interact with their permanent resident customers a little more, as well as do some deep cleaning. Asklof with Nodo said he normally spends 70 hours a week at work, so he appreciates this chance to get a little more downtime.

"It's nice not to spend so much time here," he said.

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