The health of downtown Iowa City’s economy and a plan to bring almost anything for sale downtown to people’s homes were discussed during the Iowa City Downtown District’s (ICDD) annual State of Downtown presentation on Wednesday night.
“Retail sales have held firm over the past year,” ICCD Executive Director Nancy Bird told the audience. Iowa City has the highest amount of retail sales in Johnson County, and downtown retailers accounted for approximately half of those sales, she said.
This year’s presentation was held at the new Graduate Hotel on the Ped Mall. The renovations to convert the former Sheraton into the college-themed hotel are not yet complete, but Tim Franzen, president of Graduate Hotels, told the audience of approximately 60 gathered in the lobby that he’s looking forward to the hotel becoming part of the fabric of Iowa City once it opens.
“We want everyone who lives and works in the community to make this your living room,” Franzen said. “We want you to come here, we want you to hang out in the lobby or the coffee shop.”
The hotel’s decor reflects Iowa City’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature. The walls and the pillars of the lobby are covered with handwritten work by writer (and former Little Village managing editor) Tim Taranto. The decorations in the guest rooms also have Iowa and Iowa City themes.
Bird noted that next year there will be six hotels downtown, which should help increase tourism. She also noted that in an ICCD survey, 87 percent of Iowa City business owners were optimistic about the state of downtown.
ICCD has succeeded in establishing a partnership among competing businesses that has benefited all of those partners, said Jon Sewell, the evening’s featured speaker.
Sewell, the owner of D.P. Dough, is also the co-founder and board chair of Chomp, the Iowa City-based food delivery service. Sewell explained the history of Chomp, before moving onto new plans for a partnership between Chomp and other kinds of businesses.
Last summer, Iowa City restaurants that rely on outside delivery services found themselves having almost no real alternative to GrubHub, which had purchased its biggest rival, OrderUp. Pressing its new advantage, GrubHub nearly doubled the commission it charged restaurants on deliveries. Working with Adam Weeks, who had been OrderUp’s Iowa City manager, Sewell created a model in which local restaurants would invest in their own delivery service.
“I never thought I’d get 20 restaurant owners together to cooperate on something, but it’s actually been remarkably smooth,” Sewell said. From the original 20 participating restaurants when Chomp launched in November, it has expanded to cover 125 restaurants.
“We finally got Big Grove today,” Sewell said. “And rumor has it that Pullman is next.”
Sewell also said that Chomp had made its 50,000th delivery this week.
“That was our response to a national e-commerce threat,” Sewell said of the creation of Chomp. “What we’re kind of looking at next is ‘What are the things that are out there that are threatening the rest of retail market, beyond prepared food?’”
“What we are thinking now in Chomp is why can’t we extend that Chomp model from food delivery to retail business?” he explained. “And perhaps create — I wanted to call it ‘Chompazon’ — but we’ve been calling it Chomp Shop.”
Sewell cited the example of Hy-Vee, which has created a successful online ordering for home-delivery groceries.
“What about John’s and New Pi and some of these other shops?” Sewell asked. “In fact, we’re meeting with New Pi next week.”
Sewell said it’s a service that could work not just for retailers that want to offer their customers a convenient way of getting goods delivered, but also function on a business-to-business basis, so employees no longer have to be sent out to get supplies.
“What we are trying to do is build on this model of a collaborative partnership amongst retailers and owners to solve a problem,” Sewell said. “We’re all under the same types of threats from outside.”
“It’s something that Nancy and the Downtown District have done for years,” Sewell added.
A launch date for the new delivery service has not yet been set.