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The Blue & Gray Press | October 23, 2017

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Store Plans Axed

BY JUSTIN TONEY

The University of Mary Washington has put the breaks on a planned downtown store, which had been expected to open later this fall.
Budget cuts ordered by Gov. Tim Kaine have forced the school to rethink its plans. University officials say they have suspended negotiations to lease the property at 917 Caroline St. which had formerly housed Chords restaurant.

Property owner Joe Wilson was asking $7,000 a month for the 12,000 sq. ft. store. The school had planned to install an internet café, merchandising area, banquet room, and an “eating component,” according to Erma Baker, associate vice president of business services.

“Originally the intent was visibility downtown for the community and visitors to the city of Fredericksburg,” she said.

Associate Vice President of Business and Finance Rick Pearce said the school was still interested in establishing a down town presence,
“We’re not giving up on doing something, but doing something less costly,” he said. The school originally wanted a venue that would accommodate up to 50 customers at a time, but Pearce said they were now talking about a “small sitting area with a coffee bar, and that would be about it.”

Pearce insists that the project will continue, but it won’t be “as aggressive.”

According to Baker, the earliest possible date to take over the space on Caroline Street would have been the middle of this month.
917 Caroline Street was the third building the school considered for the downtown store, but “the first one to have come so far in negotiations,” she said.

Baker said the building contained a full-sized kitchen, four large rooms, and met all the standards of the Americans  With Disabilities Act.

Baker listed five main intended uses of the store’s location: a place to sell University merchandise, an “eating component” most likely handled by Sodexho, an exhibit space for student and faculty projects, “an element of student programming” such as poetry readings and lectures, and a place for students to go downtown.
Elmer Cramer, former co-owner of the restaurant Chords, which until recently operated at 917 Caroline St., called the location “the heart of downtown.” He reported that his business was doing fine until the recent death of his business partner and fiancé, which drove him to close the store.

The Caroline Street location is half a block south of William Street—what Cramer called “the two busiest streets in downtown”—and he considered it to be prime real estate.
“You can’t beat this area,” he said.

Pearce insisted that a UMW storefront is still “an option, but they [the President’s cabinet] have asked us to look at a smaller option.” Instead of an exclusive, university-owned venue, Pearce now wants to talk to local businesses about selling University merchandise at their locations.

He hopes that through the project “the town starts looking more like a college town,” and that a university presence off campus will encourage students to spend more money at downtown venues.
On Sept. 12, Baker and others involved with the project will be discussing a variety of “low cost/low risk opportunities.”
Area business owners had shown excitement at the prospect of a downtown store. “The more activity there is that will bring more people downtown, I’m in favor for,” said Graham Coble, owner of Corky’s, a store two doors down from the former Chords.
Paul Cymrot, the owner of Riverby Books, a block south of Chords, has had less experience with what he calls “the disconnect between the college and the town.”

“There are certainly people who have talked about students downtown as not necessarily being the biggest spenders in their stores, but that’s to be expected,” he said.

He was pleased with the idea of the storefront, but thought that rumors of the university building chain stores into its venue to lure students downtown “was underestimating the student body’s ability to recognize something that was authentic and worthwhile.”

“Is it becoming a college town?” asked Cymrot, “I hope so. It’s a great college in a great community.”