U project promotes West Bank businesses

Robyn Repya

There is a unique array of restaurants, bars, shops and University venues on the West Bank, but local residents and business owners said the University community isn’t buying.

In an effort to increase patronage of West Bank facilities and private businesses, the University formed the West Bank Exchange, a matchmaker for local businesses and neighborhood associations.

At a recent brainstorming meeting, community members and business owners suggested increasing the West Bank’s appeal to the University community through a Web site, coupons and maps.

Other options involve the University more directly and include creating a University listserv or making a West Bank tour a mandatory part of freshman orientation.

Promoting greater usage of the area would be beneficial for both the University and business owners, said Jan Morlock, University director of community relations.

The business owners would get more clients while the University would attract more patronage and revenue from event parking at venues such as the Barker Center for Dance and the Rarig Center, she said.

“We want to make sure (local residents) know what facilities are available,” Morlock said.

Some West Bank businesses encounter roadblocks because of cultural differences, said John Hulkonen, economic development director for the West Bank Community Development Corporation.

“They tend to sell to other immigrants first, not focusing on outside community customers,” he said.

Hulkonen works on the development of small businesses in the area and said he tries to help some immigrant-owned businesses cater to the potentially large University clientele. However, more work needs to be done on both sides, he said.

Because of the varying ethnic makeup of West Bank businesses, Hulkonen said, University students might not feel comfortable venturing away from their usual hangouts to try something new.

“When people don’t understand other cultures, they tend not to jump in with both feet and check it out,” he said.

Cultural studies and comparative literature sophomore Adam VanWagner said many students just don’t know what is in their own neighborhood.

“The ‘U’ campus forms almost a blockade to it – you can’t see what’s there because of the buildings,” he said.

VanWagner, Middlebrook Hall vice president, said he’s noticed that when students go out they go to Dinkytown rather than the West Bank.

“There are a lot of shops, restaurants and playhouses on the West Bank, but a lot of ‘U’ students don’t use those services,” he said. “How can we get kids to realize that they’re in an actual community here?”

Morlock said the need to develop the West Bank is enhanced by the high volume of businesses expected when the light rail transit stop in the Cedar-Riverside area opens in 2003.

She said the LRT stop will be a big advantage to neighborhood businesses.

“That might be a new way for students, faculty and staff to get to the West Bank neighborhood,” she said.

Morlock said the University is invested in its neighboring areas because they have such a large impact on the school.

“The success of the University is really linked to the success of the community around it,” Morlock said.

Steve Mularky, owner of Sargeant Preston’s, said there is a misconception about what the West Bank has to offer.

“It’s not just a bunch of 21-year-old bars, there’s more,” he said. “There’s a lot we have to offer that people just don’t know about.”

Many services students might need – such as drug stores and video stores – are located on the West Bank, Mularky said. But because many people haven’t explored the area, they go out of their way when what they need is right down the street.

Mularky said joining forces with the University would definitely help bring more people to the West Bank.

“There’s just a huge potential here for both sides of the street to benefit, and we haven’t scratched the surface,” Mularky said.