Since 2019, the City of Ithaca has seen fluctuations in the number of businesses opening and closing.
According to NBC, businesses in college towns across the country shut down in 2020 as students were sent home from their institutions, causing businesses to lose their customer base and their employees.
Businesses in college towns can be reliant on students’ presence to support the economy, as students eat at restaurants and buy supplies and clothes from stores in the area. When students were sent home in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses experienced a decline that they were unprepared for.
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said businesses move in and out of The Commons all the time.
“Normally there’s a churn of businesses every year,” Ferguson said. “That’s something we expect, and it’s part of the normal life of doing business, especially with a lot of independent businesses.”
Ferguson said one reason for vacancies downtown is a new building, Herald’s Square, that was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been slow to rent out spaces. But he said that it is still a positive sign that there are new buildings and businesses.
“Even during the pandemic, there have been more new business,” Ferguson said. “There’s been a constant stream of people wanting to make investments in the community.”
Viva Taqueria will relocate across the street from its current location to where the now-closed Pasta Vitto was for five years. La Bodega opened in 2020 but closed in July 2022. In the same year, Trader K’s closed after 26 years on The Commons, and Waffle Frolic also closed after 10 years.
Currently, Lev Kitchen is temporarily closed because of a second electrical fire — the first was in mid-December 2022 — and Mahogany Grill is temporarily closed to renew the space.
Kristin O’Scammon, owner of the Alley Cat Cafe, said the cafe has faced struggles since opening in 2018 but has managed to stay open through the COVID-19 pandemic because of its regular customers.
“We had one gentleman who would come in and get his $2 cup of coffee and leave a $20 tip for his barista,” O’Scammon said. “Having our visitors stand by the door be affirming of what we were doing was really [significant].”
O’Scammon said one step that she has taken to help keep customers engaged with the cafe is moving to a new location. While the cafe just moved to its new location on North Cayuga Street in early February, O’Scammon said she has already noticed a difference.
“The space just feels lovely,” O’Scammon said. “We get a lot more foot traffic. … We are cheerfully optimistic that it is going to be a boon for the business.”
Ferguson said in some cases, a chain store opening or closing can have local impacts, especially if the chain location is owned by a local franchisee. He said Paris Baguette, which opened in August 2022 on The Commons, is owned by a local resident, Yeonseok Song, who bought the rights to use the chain’s name at the Ithaca location.
Stores have also been closing outside of Downtown Ithaca, in the greater City of Ithaca. The Ithaca Voice announced Dec. 28, 2022, that the Ithaca location of Moe’s Southwest Grill had closed. That location was owned by an individual franchisee. While the specific reason is unclear, it was the franchisee’s decision to close the location.
On Jan. 12, The Ithaca Voice announced that Bed Bath & Beyond in Ithaca would close. In addition to Moe’s and Bed Bath & Beyond, Ithaca’s last Friendly’s also closed in August 2022.
Alyssa Denger ’22 worked at a Bed Bath & Beyond store in Pennsylvania for three years in high school before moving to Ithaca. She said the location of the Ithaca Bed Bath & Beyond off campus kept her from working there as a student, but the location could be convenient for others.
“It’s hard to find a job that you can get to [on public transportation],” Denger said. “[But] there are a lot of bus stops near Bed Bath & Beyond.”
Denger said she appreciates the accessibility of entry-level jobs like at Bed Bath & Beyond, and recognizes how its closing can impact residents.
“[The closing] sucks because [that] level of jobs are the most accessible for a lot of the student population and the lower income population in Ithaca, which I know is leading to a lot of homelessness and the housing crisis,” Denger said.
Ferguson said chain stores closing in an area can be both good and bad for small businesses.
“Sometimes [chain stores closing] has a positive impact because chain stores would otherwise suck patronage that might otherwise go to local stores,” Ferguson said. “Sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes a chain store will be like an anchor for a community.”
Sophomore Kayla French said one of the aspects of Ithaca that she loves is the sustainable and artisan stores, especially on The Commons.
“I feel like there’s a lot of unique options,” French said. “Having some local businesses who are creating their own products [is] super interesting.”
French said she is concerned about all the vacancies on The Commons and what that could mean for her favorite shops that remain open.
“I definitely think that it is really sad to see so many businesses are shutting down and there’s so many [vacancies],” French said. “I really enjoy going in shops and viewing different types of stores.”
Ferguson said the DIA tries to assist with filling the vacant storefronts on The Commons, but it is up to individual businesses to move into the spaces and it is up to building owners to rent out the spaces.
“We’re out on a regular basis trying to recruit and find people who might fill various spaces, sometimes with more success than others,” Ferguson said. “It’s just something we try to do to help.”