Downtown Iowa City businesses fear a fall without their biggest draw

When the University of Iowa shuts down, 'we shut down'

One of the display windows at Iowa Book, 8 S Clinton St, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/Th
One of the display windows at Iowa Book, 8 S Clinton St, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — What happens to a college town when there’s no college?

With the huge economic engine of the University of Iowa now on pause, and if there are not the massive crowds of football fans packing the restaurants, bars and other retail venues this fall, what happens to the vitality of downtown Iowa City? The prospects are filling downtown business owners with more than a little dread.

“When the retail shut down and the university shut down, we shut down,” said Iowa Book owner Pete Vanderhoef.

Downtown restaurants’ shift to takeout and delivery business is keeping the lights on, most with greatly reduced staff and hours.

“It’s been very slow,” said Patrick McBreen, manager of the Airliner. “Most of the students left after spring break and they just never came back. We’ve sold some pizza and wings but there’s just not that many people left to come downtown.”

“There are probably a half-dozen of us going with the to-go menu,” said Cory Kent, managing partner at Pullman Bar and Diner and St. Burch Tavern. “We decided, let’s do it and try to be as efficient as we can be. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the support we got.”

An exception is Pagliai’s Pizza, where all 30 employees are still on the job.

“We’ve been fortunate that we have a pretty solid customer base that’s really come out of the woodwork,” owner Tony Pagliai said.

“We’ve been able to keep all of our employees on staff and everybody paid. That was our main goal. It’s hurting like everybody else, but we’re staying in the black.”


‘Caught off guard’

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday relaxed her mitigation orders for 22 counties that include Iowa City, and said that retail stores could reopen beginning last Friday — provided those businesses observe social distancing and operate at no more than half capacity.

Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird said Friday that downtown businesses “were a little caught off guard” by Reynolds’ decision. She said many business owners are hesitant to rush to reopen.

“Many of our retailers are waiting a bit,” Bird said. “We have a few that are opening up where others are just taking their time and making sure their employees are ready to come back.”

Bird expects some businesses to reopen this upcoming weekend and more the following weekend. Each business has to consider its ability to keep employees and patrons safe, the clientele it serves, the business model and physical space.

“They’re taking that very seriously and factoring that in,” Bird said. “I think there might be a sentiment out there that the business community just wants to open the door and can’t wait . They’re concerned about their employees and they’re concerned about their customers.”

Bird said altering business models to allow for takeout, delivery or curbside pickup has worked so far for some restaurants, and retail downtown and those businesses are sticking with that out of caution.

While COVID-19 has hurt the business community, Bird praised the patrons who have continued to support those entities during the pandemic.

“That’s been the silver lining of this,” she said. “Our community has really stepped up and said, ‘We get it. We want to see you through this.’”


“We’re seeing a lot of donations and a lot of purchasing of gift cards or even merchandise. It’s not enough to sustain for a long period of time, but it’s certainly helping.”

The Downtown District is coordinating with Think Iowa City, Iowa City Area Development Group and Iowa City Area Business Partnership to promote pandemic-related resources, at

Once downtown is up and running again, McBreen of the Airliner said, “We could see an uptick, but I wouldn’t be surprised if students stay away or make other plans for the fall because no one knows what’s going on.”

“When we do open up, we’ve got to adhere to the 6-foot distancing rule, our staff is going to wear masks and gloves, we’ll be at 50 percent capacity,” Pullman’s Kent said.

“It’s very easy to get frustrated over what you can and cannot do, but we’re going to say, ‘This is what we’re given, we’re just going to focus that’s what we’re going to do.’ We’ve got to do the best we can.”

Economic impact

The pandemic apparently hasn’t halted plans for a new Target store downtown.

Target announced March 25 it has reduced planned openings of small-format stores nationwide from 36 to between 15 and 20. Work continues at the 115 E. Washington St. location, although the corporation won’t confirm an opening date.

A sign on the glass door reads, “Coming summer!!!,” next to a rendering depicting the completed project.


“Target remains committed to serving guests in the Iowa City community and can share additional details and timing when available,” a company spokeswoman wrote in an email.

With reduced business likely a given through the summer, the question becomes whether autumn will bring anything like a back-to-school boost.

“The university has a huge economic impact on all of us,” Kent said. “It brings a lot of business with football and the parents’ weekend and families helping the kids move in.

“Whatever that looks like, it’s going to be different. It’s not going to be normal, but we understand why.”

“If we don’t have people coming to football games, that’s really going to put a crimp on us,” Vanderhoef added. “The students only really shop for textbooks and school supplies the first week of the semester. The other 50 weeks a year it’s essentially casual shopping. We don’t have anything they have to have.”

In recent weeks, Iowa Book had been filling online orders. Vanderhoef noted the usual summertime staff of 11 generally expands to 60 for the back-to-school rush.

But with the governor’s decision Wednesday to allow some businesses to reopen, Vanderhoef plans to open his shop’s doors to talk-in customers starting from 10 a.m. to noon Monday “with a limited crew.”

“The university hasn’t opened, so we don’t know what’s out there,” Vanderhoef said Friday. “ ... We’re sort of dipping our toes in the water to see how hot it is.”

He was not overly concerned about social distancing inside the store.


“Last year at this time, it was very rare to have 10 people in the store,” he recalled.

The UI has said it plans to have students back on campus this fall but is expecting a lower enrollment. Just what guidelines the UI would need to follow — and whether Hawkeye football in Kinnick Stadium resumes as normal — remains to be seen.

“If they’re not able to do classes at the university and it’s only online, it’s going to be a tough sell to pay rent,” the Airliner’s McBreen admitted. “Even if they do classes in person, I can’t imagine living in the dorms would be a comfortable thing for a lot of parents.”

“Our hope is that football season kicks off and we get back,” Kent said. “But we know it might not.”


Lee Hermiston of The Gazette contributed

Comments: (319) 339-3155;

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.