Iowa City businesses brace for fall with no Hawkeye football

Iowa City businesses brace for fall with no Hawkeye football

IOWA CITY — Danny Standley was expecting to have Iowa football’s home opener Sept. 5 on the television screens at Big Grove, not the Eastern Kentucky vs. Marshall college game.

There was supposed to be a DJ playing music and four signs spelling out “IOWA” on the stage.

But not this year.

A room usually full with fans donning black and gold and eyes glued to a projector screen was empty. The restaurant and brewery still had more than 125 people there, but it was a fraction of what its “Kinnick outside of Kinnick” environment usually held.

A couple miles away, Rich Wretman walked to Kinnick Stadium, like he’s done the past 45 years on the first Saturday of September. But he didn’t spend money at the pregame and postgame tailgates, nor was he wearing any black and gold. A parking lot next to Kinnick usually packed with tailgaters had more people passing by in running clothes than in Hawkeyes gear.

“Quite a bit different than what we were planning on,” said Wretman, who lives a few minutes away from Kinnick.

From Big Grove to Kinnick, Iowa City restaurants, bars, hotels and retailers are bracing for a fall without seven weekends of Iowa Hawkeye football.

“I would summarize it in a word: devastating,” said Josh Schamberger, executive director of Think Iowa City.

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Football’s economic impact usually is north of $120 million for a season, Schamberger said, including money spent on hotels, food and beverage, retail and transportation.

“It’s always nice to have 80,000 people in town that are all looking for some place to eat,” said Seth Dudley, general manager of the iconic Hamburg Inn No. 2.

Pete Vanderhoef, owner of Iowa Book, which sells Hawkeye gear in addition to books, compared the seven Iowa home games with “seven Christmases.”

“The football crowd is basically our clientele,” Vanderhoef said. “The Friday, Saturday and Sunday sales with a home football game is maybe five times what it is without a football game. It’s really important to us.”

According to a 2014 study on the economic impact of the Iowa vs. Indiana home football game, the game generated $9,763,822 in direct expenditures. Of that, $9,308,247 was spent by non-local visitors.

Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District, said the impact will affect businesses differently.

“It’s interesting, because it seems like the impact continues to grow and reverberate in different ways,” Bird said. “It impacted some businesses differently than others. Restaurants and bars are more impacted by athletics.”

Dudley said Hamburg Inn “can survive without football” because it relies less on students than many downtown Iowa City establishments.

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Dudley, who has worked at downtown restaurants and bars before, said the lack of football “could be a crushing blow” for many local establishments.

“That’s where we made all our money during football season,” Dudley said. “In the winter, we lived off money we made in football season. The rest of year you just hope to break even.”

Brian Flynn, owner of 30hop, Joe’s Place and Tin Roost, said the lack of football this season is a “big gut punch” to downtown bars.

“There’s going to be a lot of places that close up,” Flynn said. “The big thing is, I think, not having the football season, for some people, that’s going to be the nail in the coffin. It’s unfortunate.”

The impact goes beyond the typical tailgating or restaurant stops before and after games.

Schamberger said an economic impact study done four or five years ago showed that about 13 percent of the people who come to Iowa City on gameday don’t actually go to the game.

“They’re tagalongs,” Schamberger said. “They spend their time shopping in downtown Iowa City or the Coral Ridge Mall. A lot of the folks that come to the game are from rural Iowa. They don’t have the retail offering you can get in Iowa City — the mall and the Costcos of the world.”

Raygun owner Mike Draper said his company is seeing “a ripple effect on multiple fronts” from no Iowa football. Along with less foot traffic near its storefront on Iowa City’s Washington Street, Des Moines-based Raygun also screen-prints apparel for Hy-Vee, Scheel’s and many company tailgates.

“Our store is kind of a microcosm of how this kind of ripples through multiple areas of business,” Draper said.

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The total loss in business is more than $100,000, Draper said. The loss of wholesale and custom printing for other companies during football season makes up about 20 percent of its business, Draper said, with in-store traffic already down 30 to 50 percent.

Iowa Book would usually be in its busy sales season — from mid-August to January. Now that university students have already picked up their textbooks, his business relies on sales of Iowa-branded apparel. Sales already are half of what a normal year’s busy season would be, Vanderhoef said. He isn’t losing sleep, though.

“I sleep like a baby,” Vanderhoef said with a laugh. “Then I cry and go to the bathroom.”

He said “we’ll see” whether he’s still in business this time next year.

“Right now, there is nothing certain,” Vanderhoef said. “We’re hopefully positioned to survive all this. … It’s going to be pretty lean for another year.”

He has already cut staffing and hours.

Like Iowa Book, restaurants and bars also have been juggling challenges from the pandemic for months.

In her latest emergency health proclamation, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered bars in six counties where COVID-19 cases have been surging — including Johnson and Linn — to be closed through Sept. 20. But she indicated in an interview Friday she might act this week to lift the closure order in some or all six of the counties.

Sales were already down for Flynn 30 to 60 percent, and while paying for extra servers and security and providing masks to all employees and customers because of the pandemic.

Hamburg Inn has not reopened its dining room yet, relying on curbside pickup and delivery orders. When the weather gets colder, that’ll lead to a difficult decision.

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“If we reopen and then our staff gets sick and we have to close down for two weeks, how much is that going to cost us?” Dudley wondered.

Big Grove expanded its outdoor patio space and has fire pits for when the weather gets colder. Not everyone has that luxury, though.

“We are going to be able to probably survive this winter,” Standley said. “We could be in a really bad spot right now, and so many people are. We are incredibly blessed.”

Neal Roth, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Iowa City, said the lack of weddings and other events have made the last few months especially difficult for hotels.

If football was the only thing lost, Roth said, hotels would be in “a lot better of a situation” than right now.

“The challenge that many businesses have — hotels especially — is there’s also not as many social functions happening,” Roth said. “The football loss we’ll have is significant, but we’ve lost nearly 100 percent of our banquet business, and there’s almost zero corporate travel going on.”

Schamberger said many hotels have been “on life support” since the beginning of the pandemic. Occupancy rates have improved since May, but are still lagging, Schamberger said. For instance, the month of July closed with 46 percent occupancy in area hotels when it should have been around 73 percent across the market.

“That’s better than the month of April when we were down 60 percent,” Schamberger said. “It’s climbed up a little bit, but it’s still horrible.”

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Schamberger said the restaurateurs, hoteliers and other business owners he’s spoken with are holding out hope there’s “some sort of spring season. A spring football season would help to curtail some of this year’s losses, Schamberger said. But without a spring season, the consequences could be dire.

“If you don’t have a fall season and you don’t have a spring season and you’re looking at September 2021 … I think the consequences are going to be pretty severe in terms of the number of restaurants, the number of hotels that will be forced to close up shop,” Schamberger said.

Without out-of-town visitors filling Iowa City businesses, Bird said they need local residents to continue to support those businesses.

“We need to look at the community as a way to help us out,” Bird said. “Make sure they are coming here and shopping, ordering take out, getting online services.”

The news of the loss of Big Ten football was not necessarily a surprise for many businesses.

“We were kind of assuming there wasn’t going to be a football season or at least there weren’t going to be crowds for the football season,” Dudley said.

That still doesn’t help.

“There’s nothing you can easily swap (Iowa football) in with,” Draper of Raygun said. “What’s a giant cultural experience that everybody is on board with? … We didn’t come up with anything.”

Bird and Schamberger are trying to use many smaller events and promotions to make up for some of the losses.

Schamberger said Think Iowa City, the Iowa City Downtown District and the Iowa City Area Business Partnership have been working together to streamline information and support businesses. He pointed to the Gift Card Incentive Program: For every $150 spent at a participating business, customers will receive a $20 gift card and $5 will go to a business grant fund.

Bird pointed to smaller, self-guided “micro events” or the Northside Oktoberfest in a Box, a celebration of the “24½” anniversary of Northside Oktoberfest and Iowa City BrewFest.

The $118 box includes a 12-pack of Iowa beers, custom glasses from John’s Grocery, pretzels, a take-and-bake Pagliai’s Pizza, gift cards, wine and other items.

“We’re looking at ways to engage that keeps the essence of those things alive,” Bird said, pointing to events like the Northside Oktoberfest. “Maybe this changes things forever, we don’t know. But we can continue engagement.”

Individual businesses also are looking for ways to help each other. Standley said he can’t announce anything yet, but Big Grove is working on a plan to possibly “save some of these Saturdays for Iowa City.”

“It kind of lands on us to do something a little more than, ‘How do we get as many people into our taproom?’” Standley said. “There’s a lot to be done.”

If local businesses aren’t supported, they could close and national chains could take their place, Bird warned.

“One thing that’s really great about our downtown community, it has a very robust retail and restaurant environment. That’s what’s at stake here,” Bird said. “Our business mix is something we’re really trying to guard at this point. We want to make sure our retailers can stay in there.”

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