Three business owners have decided to launch the Collegetown Business Alliance. Natalie Sweeney of Natalia’s Boutique, Marty Johnson of Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, and Annie Quach of the Hai Hong Restaurant all have storefronts on upper Dryden Road (above College Avenue). They met last summer and found that they were all the same age—early 30s—and all had similar concerns about undertaking commerce in Collegetown.
Their first project was to write up a petition to Cornell University. It is dated for mid November and they intend to turn it into the office of Cornell president David Skorton after a 6:15 p.m. meet-and-greet on Wednesday, Dec. 18 at the Hai Hong on Dryden Road. That will be the last opportunity for merchants to sign the document. Their chief concern was the location of housing for summer students.
It’s our understanding that, at one point, summer college on west, summer session, three-day summer seminar, and professional development program participants were housed in Cascadilla Hall and Sheldon Court. Proximity to Collegetown businesses, restaurants, services, and amenities is both a great advantage to students and merchants alike. When summer students are housed close to Collegetown, we all benefit; when they are not, we feel the effect.
“We went up and down the street,” said Sweeney, “and we got nearly everyone on [Dryden Road and College Avenue] to sign the petition. We were also letting them know what we want to do for the smaller businesses.”
If they get no response from Cornell or an unsatisfactory one, the business alliance intends to approach the Collegetown Council, which meets on the second Tuesday of each month and to raise issues like the shortage of trash cans, inadequate lighting, broken meters, and bad sidewalks.
A basic problem as Sweeney and her colleagues see it is that new visitors—both students and tourists—can’t find information about Collegetown. There is no guide to the restaurants and the shops. The nascent business alliance is working on producing a map that would be available for free on paper and as a app for cell phones. “There are four or five salons in the neighborhood,” said Sweeney, “but guys walk into my store everyday and ask me where they can get a haircut.”
The rents for commercial spaces in Collegetown are the highest in the city and shockingly high. Sweeney quoted rates between $14,000 and $23,000 per month. In order to pay the rent, Collegetown businesses need traffic coming through the doors throughout the year.
Sweeney moved into her storefront last summer. Johnson has been in Collegetown for three years. He has been stunned by the huge swings in the amount of business he does. “It’s different from the normal shipping store model,” he said. “The customers are primarily students, so I carry office supplies and greeting cards and do a lot more printing and a lot more international shipping than most shipping stores.
“It’s very seasonal and the seasons are different,” Johnson said. “For example, at the end of the spring semester they all come in at once.” He wishes that the university would provide information to its students that would help spread out the demand.
“The university can’t promote individual businesses,” he said, “but they can promote a business alliance. Off campus housing can recommend an alliance website that includes several restaurants, but not individual restaurants.”
The Collegetown Business Alliance intends to be a much more informal organization than the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. There will be no membership. “We want to be like ‘Hey we’re here if you need us,’” said Johnson. “We want to have a low key sort of start. Who knows how it will develop?”
It will be more of a social setting in which merchants can talk to each other and participate of their own free will in any events that the alliance puts together.
“We would like to have events,” said Johnson. “We could welcome the students back with a street fair, a restaurant week, or something.”
But the point of the petition is to get students to walk through Collegetown in the first place. Annie Quach is 2003 graduate of the Cornell hotel school, and she has lived in Collegetown for most of her life. “Life here is more dull than I remember it,” she said. “I would like to restore the glory days of five or 10 years ago. To do that we have to build a community among the business owners. A lot of us are the same age and we share the same entrepreneurial spirit, but we all cater to different crowds.”
According to Quach, since she was a student the university has put more and more amenities on campus. “It’s a great school and it has great everything,” she said. “I had a great experience while I was a student there, but now the rules have changed now that I’m a small business owner.”
One of the major recent shifts has been the university’s shift from housing summer students on the southern edge of the main campus near Collegetown to having them live largely in North Campus. “Older owners told us that students used to be housed in Cascadilla Hall,” said Johnson. “But it is quite a bit quieter now.”
Sweeney, Johnson, and Quach all said that they had no interest in antagonizing the university. They merely want Cornell to hear their concerns. “We want to enrich the students’ lives,” said Quach. “It is a mutually beneficial relationship.
“I’ve know upperclassmen who get lost when they move off campus,” she said, “even though they have lived here for two years. I’ve been a town resident and a college student, and I can tell you that they are two very different experiences.”