Aggieville business owners advocate against losing small businesses

TJ Vilkanskas presents the plan for the Aggieville Midtown development. The project will bring retail, office space and housing to Aggieville. (Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

At Tuesday’s city commission meeting, Mayor Mark Hatesohl said the building where The Dusty Bookshelf is located may soon house new owners.

“My understanding of that deal was that the owner of the building was approached and said, ‘Hey, we’ll give you three times as much rent if you let us rent that space,’” Hatesohl said.

Hatesohl said property owners can be sentimental, but small businesses need to understand the bottom line is maximizing profits.

“That’s market economics that the city can’t do anything about,” Hatesohl said.

Sarah Cunnick, owner of Sisters of Sound, said this attitude will cause more small businesses like The Dusty Bookshelf to close in Aggieville.

“But remember, ‘don’t be sentimental’ about it [The Dusty Bookshelf],” Cunnick said. “I’m gonna keep saying that for a while, that Hatesohl said ‘don’t be sentimental’ about a business that has been here for 30 years and that I consider an anchor business for all the other businesses in Aggieville.”

Aggieville’s newest construction project has stirred up more discussion between business owners and public officials about the possible decline of small businesses. 

The project proposes building a mixed-use facility with retail, office, residential and public space on the corner of 12th and Laramie Street, TJ Vilkanskas, president of Back Nine Development, said. 

“The bulk of the businesses in Aggieville are very, very pleased with our project, including the Aggieville Business Association and the Chamber of Commerce,” Vilkanskas said. “You’re always going to have a few people, the minority so to speak, that are a little bit more outspoken. I’m sympathetic to their needs. The construction, it’s a real deal.”

Cunnick said the construction is pushing Aggieville small businesses to the brink of closure and frustrating business owners. 

“Construction after construction, and all the local people, all your local residents — your townies as we call them — they don’t want to come down into Aggieville,” Cunnick said. “Some of them don’t know how to come through Aggieville, so they’ve just given up. … You can’t survive just on the students.”

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Decreasing revenue and increasing rent makes profit margins smaller each year, Royce Ardery, manager of Hard Knock Small Engine Repair, said.

“If you look at rent in Salina and Topeka … their rent is going down,” Ardery said. “Ours is still going up. Every year our profit margin gets smaller and smaller, taxes go up, cost of doing business goes up, everything.”

Vilkanskas says his goal is to revitalize Aggieville to bring business back.

“What we’re trying to do is bring over 400 jobs to the area, 108 hotel rooms and 500 parking stalls that the city and the taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for,” Vilkanskas said. “It’s really going to help that district and bring some growth for that district in all of the small businesses there. I feel strongly that it is going to benefit all of them.”

The construction will be paid for by more than 50 private investors, Vilkanskas said. Names of the investors have not been disclosed at this time.

“We anticipate spending right around $100 million on both sides of the street here,” Vilkanskas said. “That’s privately funded.”

Cunnick said this project gentrifies Aggieville, replacing small businesses with chain stores.

“I don’t know how much they’re asking for rent but the only places that can afford things like that are the big box stores like your Urban Outfitters,” Cunnick said.

Cunnick said this project will strip Aggieville of its character as larger chain stores force small businesses out.

“What happens when it’s all of a sudden, you’re not catering to the football crowd anymore?” Cunnick said. “The people that are coming in town for some conference or something like that, they’re not looking for the same crap that they see in Kansas City, they’re looking for something different, something that reflects Manhattan. That’s all slowly going away.”

While the bottom line for property owners is to maximize profits, Cunnick said business owners are worried if the project continues, Aggiville’s identity will be lost to corporatization.

“Once a lot of this stuff goes away, it will never be replaced,” Cunnick said.

The city commission will deliberate on this issue before voting next month.