Local businesses brainstorming ways to attract students


NIU sophomore undecided major Joe Pennington walks through downtown DeKalb on Wednesday afternoon.

By Olivia Willoughby

The number seven bus is best known for delivering students to businesses like Wal-Mart and Target, located on Sycamore Road, but downtown business owners think students should explore stops closer to campus.

After five stops, students get the opportunity to hop off on Second Street and explore local downtown businesses. In the eyes of Mayor of DeKalb Kris Povlsen, they do not take this opportunity often.

“Downtown is not a frequented as much as it could be much because of the proximity,” Povlsen said. “I think that there is a perception barrier. The perception is: downtown is so far from campus. And the reality is that it’s much closer than Sycamore road and the towns students came from. It’s a mind set that downtown is another world.”

Truth is, NIU’s campus and downtown are next door to one another. It is an easy chance for students to explore what Povlsen calls a “charming and pleasant place to shop.”

Decorator of The House Cafe, 263 East Lincoln Highway, Chris Stanley, said it depends on the students’ curriculum.

“But when you’re on campus, everything you need is there,” Stanley said. “If it’s in their curriculum, then students will come downtown, like for musical performances.”

Over the years, Stanley has usually seen different classes coming to The House Cafe for the evening jazz. What happens on campus affects whether their visitors are students or not.

“It flows and goes with what the campus is doing,” Stanley said. “It seems to me that some students stay through the summer. It shifts with student participation [at the cafe].”

Business owners believe that age may be a barrier. Mel Witmer,owner of O’Leary’s Restaurant and Pub, 260 East Lincoln Highway, said some students might just perceive downtown a place mainly focused on bars.

“There’s always a stigma that the downtown is just bars,” Witmer said. “But there are things to do downtown. It’s never looked so good. It’s been under construction for two years, and that didn’t help. Other than that it’s pretty now.”

That stigma of perceiving downtown DeKalb as a place of drinking and nothing else is true with Megan Urness, sophomore textiles apparel and merchandising major, has never visited downtown.

“It’s not in my comfort zone,” Urness said. “You just kind of avoid what you don’t know. I don’t know what’s down there aside from a couple of bars and I’ve never had a reason to.”

Jim Allen, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said he sees more students visiting usually during the night time.

“I see a vast majority of students around dinner time,” Allen said. “But there are other things like Bliss Beads and the big thing is that there’s a wide variety of restaurants. There are some very unique places that would be appealing to college students.”

Even though Urness does not visit, she still said it’s better to support local businesses.

“It’s always good and I think it’s better to give our money to small business and support your city and the people who live there,” Urness said. “I probably would if I had a better idea of what’s down there. And I think you just get bored of the same old stores. So I think it’s always good to change it up once in a while.”

Although junior English major Amy Steinsdoerfer said she goes to Sycamore Road more than downtown, she still likes the area.

“I do like downtown because it’s cute and old-fashioned,” Steinsdoerfer said. “Cracker Jaxx is really cute, my sister-in-law and I like going there. Also, it’s more fun to walk around and more on a personal level downtown. Unlike on Sycamore Road, where you’re just driving around in a car.”

Steinsdoerfer also said students should not only say they care about downtown, but also support local businesses.

“There’s a difference between caring and doing,” Steinsdoerfer said. “I definitely think people should care because what if that’s them some day in that small business? Plus, I think it’s good to see where you live. [Downtown] is a part of the town where you live and go to school.”

Local businesses are still brainstorming ways to attract more students. Some believe having festivals for students could help.

“It’d be nice to have a Freshman Fest or NIU Fest to get people downtown,” Witmer said. “We could have something like a ‘Taste of the Downtown’ to get these students acclimated to downtown. I’d be willing to provide foods and samples. We’re all looking to explore ideas on how to serve students.”

Povlsen also had ideas for attracting students and their families downtown and he said it will not be easy because having to change the perspectives of students is challenging.

“It’s a combination of downtown marketing and students to get out of their comfort zones,” Povlsen said. “It’s only a half a dozen blocks away.”