University of Iowa

Nichol Nelson

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Memorial Union draws students in with a beverage. Frosty and inviting, the drink lures students from across the Iowa River and down a daunting hill to gather on bar stools in the union’s Wheelroom.
The drink is not beer, but a low-fat smoothie.
Students gather around the bar at all hours of the day, ordering drinks with exotic ingredients like wheat grass and ginseng.
Alcohol was removed from the building last year amidst concern about high levels of campus drinking. Its replacement: a smoothie bar. But to the surprise of administrators, the yogurt drink has proved more financially viable than alcohol, far outselling beer.
The success of the smoothie shows the strategy Iowa union officials employ to keep high traffic levels passing through the union every day: Listen to what students want while keeping revenue needs in mind.
The union, which sits on the east back of the Iowa River, is a success story. Although students have minor complaints about the contents of the union, the building is full of students until 2 a.m.
Its main tenants — the bookstore, Iowa House hotel and food vendors — provide the union with a fair degree of financial self-sufficiency. Even with those three money-makers, the Iowa Memorial Union will still lose about $300,000 this year.
But that deficit needs to be understood in context, said Phillip Jones, dean of students.
“You’re not going to find any union in the Big Ten that is self-supporting,” Jones said.
Location is another key factor in a union’s success. The Iowa River splits the campus into two mini-cities, with most undergraduate classes sharing the east side with the union.
Administrators and students alike express concern over the union’s location, for although the union is in the center of campus, the meandering Iowa River serves as a barrier to many graduate and medical students on the west side.
“You can pump as much money as you want into a union, but if it’s in a bad location, no one’s going to come,” said Brian White, president of the university’s student government.
David Grady, director of the union, said the union is trying to focus on the positives of its location by expanding student space towards the Iowa River.
“We’re literally turning our back on the river,” he said while detailing plans to expand the union’s patio area out to the slow-moving river.
Although Iowa just renovated its union in 1989, plans for another massive union renovation are in the early stages. Administrators estimate the project will begin in three to five years.
The renovation 10 years ago connected the two union buildings with a tangle of metal and glass that many students said looked like an airport.
The renovation was financially successful for the union because it expanded the building’s two main revenue sources: food services and the bookstore. Administrators estimate the two will generate $20 million this year.
Students considering renovation should be aware of the financial viability of their unions, Jones said.
“That’s students’ biggest trump card,” Jones said. “There have to be things in the union to help it pay for itself.”
Those financial factors affect foot traffic. Although the building has four floors, the majority of students can be found in the ground floor of the building because the 1989 renovation centered the food courts there.
Groups of students pepper the tables adjacent to various food vendors, locating themselves by the unwritten rules that accompany each study area: Use the quiet Hawkeye room for big tests, study in the louder Wheelroom when you want to run into friends.
The basement is packed with students all day, but some say they resent having the food and study locations packaged on one floor.
“The disadvantage of this union is the way students are trafficked in here,” said Scott Shuman, vice president of University of Iowa student government. “There is really nothing available on any other level.”
Students are also drawn to the ground-floor food vendors by the convenience of charging food on student IDs that double as charge cards, racking up food totals on tuition bills that often get sent home to parents.
“If you’re hungry and you have no money, go to the union,” said Amanda Lehner, a sophomore in communications.
Junior Greg Johnson echoed her sentiments, saying that food in the union is “all free.”
“It’s all going home,” he said of the bills for sandwiches and pizza.