When students came back to Swarthmore after the summer, a new Swarthmore village greeted them. The town is now dotted with empty buildings as several businesses either collapsed or changed locations. Although each store closed for different reasons, Borough President Tom Huestis observed, “there are more vacancies at one time than I remember for a long time.”
Several stores closed for reasons personal to the owners, according to Kathy Gerner, president of Swarthmore Town Center Inc, which is a non-profit organization focused on improving the business district. The owners of Kerri’s Kandies, a candy store, and Da Vinci’s, a cafÃ© near Dunkin Donuts, closed their Ville stores to reopen in locations nearer to their homes. Cricket Way, the antique shop, closed down because the owner found that trading antiques online was more profitable.
However, Booksource, a bookstore, and the Village Restaurant both closed down because they were struggling financially. The restaurant had been open for almost thirty years. It was also a local favorite, particularly attracting senior Borough residents. Despite the loyalty of its customers, the restaurant was unable to remain competitive as the demographics of the town changed, said Scott Richardson, owner of Occasionally Yours, a sandwich and catering shop on Park Avenue.
“The Village Restaurant was there, but it had a niche it filled for older generation,” he said. “As they moved out, they had less customers, and it wasn’t the type of menu that a younger group of people would want.”
While a handful of stores have failed, many others are seeing significant growth; in the last year, the Co-Op profits rose between 8-10%, Dunkin Donuts rose 11%, and Occasionally Yours rose 28%.
Potential tenants have already been found for all but one of the empty spaces. Since the new business will help redefine the downtown, the borough has been seeking specific types of landlords.
“What we don’t want is a lot of service providers, such as insurance offices,” said Huestis. “They don’t generate a lot of foot-traffic and economic activity. Some of that is fine, but what we’ve been trying to do is keep it retail that is interesting and appropriate to the town.”
The key for a business is to match the town’s environment, which Richardson describes as “artsy and educated”. One successful example is the new Creative Living Room, which provides creative art classes, including music, dance, drama, art, Spanish, according to its website. The borough seemed receptive to the space, according to Mayor Eck Gerner.
“I attended their opening on Saturday afternoon and it was the largest opening I can remember, other than Dunkin Donuts and the Co-Op,” he said.
Evolving as a college town
Swarthmore College students are quickly becoming a focus as potential business clientÃ¨le. Commerce in the Ville has felt the sting of the Swarthmore bubble as the campus became self-sufficient with two coffee bars, the bank, and student-run cafes.
“It’s hard to compete with the College, because it’s so convenient,” said Gerner, president of the Swarthmore Town Center. “Unless you’re coming down for dinner or Dunkin Donuts, there’s a lot for you on campus, so you don’t need to come to town.”
That was not always the case. Before the Franklin Mint Credit Union opened on campus in 1992, students used visit the PNC bank downtown. Gerner recalled often seeing a long line of students waiting outside of the bank.
Several businesses are recognizing the need to attract college students. Co-Op General Manager Gerry Greway said, “What [businesses] need to say is, this is a college town. [We need] a collection of stores that actually meet both needs of parents visiting and people who live nearby.” Greway particularly noted the absence of a “hip coffee shop,” that seems emblematic of a “college town.”
The Co-op has launched student-friendly initiatives of its own, such as offering a selection of gourmet cheeses and more prepared food. It hopes to offer free wireless soon. “We’re in the embryo stages of connecting with students in the college. I consider them an important part of the community,” said Greway.
The main problem is bridging the gap between students’ and residents’ needs.
“Nothing is open late at night because many of us own our businesses, and we can’t stay till late,” said Richardson.
Among prospective student-friendly business ideas, Richardson quickly ruled out a nightclub, or similar types of establishments.
“What would kids come down for?” asked Gerner. The Town Center aims to reach out to students to answer this elusive question. It also wants to introduce students to the resources already available. While it maybe a virtue to have small, specialty stores in Swarthmore, the stores risk falling into obscurity.
Two students, Otis Comorau ‘10 and Carl Shapiro ‘10, expressed a desire for a used bookstore downtown, not realizing that Booksource used to sell old and rare books. Another choice was a bridge club, a resource the Dew Drop Inn already has on Mondays, but at an inconvenient time for students.
Comorau’s final request was a Mambo club.
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