Melissa Merli: Downtown Urbana businesses suffer through street work

Melissa Merli: Downtown Urbana businesses suffer through street work

Hey, people, despite all the orange cones, barricades and yellow tape in downtown Urbana, the businesses there are still open.

And some are hurting because of the prolonged street construction.

Dyke Corson, owner of Corson's Music Guitar Store, said all the work downtown has caused "a definite downfall" at his shop at the corner of Race and Main streets. Walk-in traffic, he said, is down to almost nothing.

Race Street just south of University Avenue has been closed all summer; most customers from Champaign would turn on Race to get to his shop, he said.

And the work on the corner has blocked access except from the west — over a plywood board. All of this has caused one student with mobility issues to cancel his lessons, Corson said.

"Yeah, it's just been horrible," he told me Thursday. "It's tough for mom-and-pop stores anyway."

Some prospective customers at Corson's tell employees they can buy an instrument or another item cheaper online and not have to pay sales tax.

"They ask, 'Can you beat that?' Not 'Can you match that?' It's 'Can you beat that?'" Corson said.

He said business at his Champaign shop is better than the Urbana location's but is still slow because of the economy.

Jan Chandler, owner of the Heartland Gallery on Main Street, has seen a drop in business this summer as well.

"We never expect it to be super-good in the summers but it's definitely been down this summer," she said. "It's starting to pick up now because I've been making an extra effort to get my customers in."

To draw people, she's had — for over a month now — a "Construction" sale, marking everything down by 20 percent.

"I decided to do it to boost sales in any way possible," she said. "I've tried many different tactics, and the whole 'sale' idea is the only one that ever works. People love a good sale.

"It shouldn't have to be this way with art, though. But I'll do anything I can to get people in. We need the money to pay our monthly bills. June and July sales were both down from last year, though July's not as much. Probably because my 'construction' sale boosted sales."

Chandler also is selling "garage sale" items in her shop. (Last week I found a nice frame, new, with an archival mat, and a book of affirmations for artists.)

Many of the people who come into Heartland complain about the street construction, calling it difficult and confusing, Chandler said.

"The stop signs (replacing stoplights) are low, and I see people going through without stopping. One guy drove into the wet cement."

The Heartland Gallery, which she opened seven years ago, sells Celtic art from Ireland as well as items made by local artists.

Susan Pryde, founder and owner of Eclectic, formerly called Shared Space, also on Main Street, sent out a mass email to friends this past week, saying she's been struggling financially for a while.

Eclectic is $2,800 behind in rent and owes $5,700 in commissions to artists. The shop's roster of artists has dropped from 54 to 30.

When sales drop, some artists no longer can afford the monthly fee to be a member, she said. Some have disabilities, and some are retired; others might work full time and just want to cover the cost of their hobby.

To help her cash flow, Pryde has had garage sales, her annual $10 Original Art Sale (I snagged two items there last week) and increased the monthly membership fee from $30 to $60 a month. She also dropped her commission from 30 percent to 20 percent.

She admitted her financial struggles are solely caused by the streetscaping project that's a month behind. She opened shop without any capital or loan; now she can't get a personal loan as she doesn't have enough equity in her home.

She also blamed the sluggish economy and the fact many people are downsizing and just don't want or need more tchotchkes. She also said people are slow about purchasing art, when they might drop a sizeable amount of money on jewelry.

And artist co-ops are not known for being successful, she said. Those that succeed usually are located in tourist towns or big cities.

"I was hoping to be the exception," she said.

Pryde didn't open Eclectic to turn a huge profit anyway. She just wants a place for artists to show their work, where people can support artists and buy local, and to make $500 to $1,000 a month for herself to live on.

Unlike other artist co-ops, Eclectic takes work by anyone who wants to show there, making for a variety of items. The artists don't have to staff the shop; Pryde does.

She said she won't go with a whimper. Helping her come up with new marketing efforts is Cheryle Turner, who is retired from marketing at Busey Bank. Turner is doing that on a volunteer basis. I commend her, as Eclectic fills a niche downtown and gives all artists and craftsters a place to show and sell.

Among efforts already planned by Pryde are an Aug. 27 fundraiser. She's also seeking funds via Indiegogo, an international "crowd-funding" website.

Carolyn Baxley, owner of Cinema Gallery on Main Street in Urbana, said the construction work hasn't hurt her business because she doesn't depend on foot traffic.

"I'm not as hard hit as people with lower-priced volume purchases," she said. "I know it's affecting people because they're coming in and grousing."

Street parking, for the most part, remains open. But some potential customers have the perception it isn't, Baxley said. And like Chandler, she's seen confusion and accidents at the four-way stops.

"It's not as bad as it could be," Baxley said. "It will get worse when they resurface and stripe the streets," though the city has promised to have that done at night.

Baxley said the street improvements have to be done — but expeditiously.

"In our case a bunch of businesses are teetering on the brink all the time, so any little factor will tip it," she said.


One of my friends who sells her art always wonders why artist co-ops in the C-U area have had such a hard time making it.

"I'm not sure that there IS a formula or location that works in C-U for selling art," she said. "For whatever reason, the community does not support it."

She then pointed me to a New York Times article published a week ago on Community Supported Art.

What a great idea, but would it fly here?

In the article, Randy Kennedy reported that the first C.S.A. program started four years ago in Minnesota; since then the programs have popped up in Pittsburgh, Miami, Brooklyn, N.Y., Lincoln, Neb., and Fargo, N.D.

"The goal, borrowed from the world of small farms, is a deeper-than-commerce connection between people who make things and people who buy them," Kennedy wrote.

"The art programs are designed to be self-supporting: Money from shares is used to pay the artists, who are usually chosen by a jury, to produce a small work in an edition of 50 or however many shares have been sold. The shareholders are often taking a leap of faith. They don't know in advance what the artists will make and find out only at the pickup events, which are as much about getting to know the artists as collecting the fruits of their shares."

The full story is at

New job

Seems as if Christina McClelland, the public arts coordinator for the city of Urbana, is following her own advice to "stay in motion."

She has a new job as public arts program coordinator for the city and county of Denver, Colo. She joined the city of Urbana in January 2011.

Her predecessor, Anna Hochhalter, left the newly created position after three or so years to study for a master's of fine arts degree in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. She received her degree this spring and quickly landed a job at a design firm in Chicago.

In her final year of graduate study, Hochhalter received honorable mention in the Detroit by Design 2012: Detroit Riverfront Competition. To read more about her project, go to

I was impressed with both young women; they are intelligent, talented and capable.

New scholarship

The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre recently awarded a Virginia Roesch Scholarship to Caitlin Caruso-Dobbs and Christopher Terrell Brown.

Mrs. Roesch, who died in October 2012, had lived in various places but considered Champaign home. She was passionate about music and musical theater and supported Virginia Theatre, Station Theatre and Assembly Hall programs. Mrs. Roesch wanted to give money for scholarships for theater students; her family contacted the Celebration Company, which will give a $500 Roesch scholarship each year, for five years, to a young man and a young woman.

Caruso-Dobbs is a sophomore at New York University, studying vocal performance, with an emphasis on musical theater. Brown is a UI senior majoring in acting. Both are from C-U.

The Celebration Company also gave its annual Danny Sullivan Memorial Scholarship, worth $250, to Mark E. Fox, who is studying theater at the UI. That scholarship has been given each year since 2010, when company member Sullivan died.

"It is a great feeling to be so supported and believed in by my community; I know I would be nowhere without the experiences and opportunities I've had here," Caruso-Dobbs said on Facebook. "Not to mention just having finished an incredible first weekend of performances of 'Les Miserables' with a cast that defies adversity of any kind and defines professionalism, as well as being one of the most enjoyable groups of people I've ever encountered."

She plays the adult Cosette in the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company production of "Les Miz," which has received good reviews. Its last performance is at 2:30 p.m. today at the Parkland College Theatre.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or

Topics (3):Art, People, Theater

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circlesboutique wrote on August 11, 2013 at 8:08 am

It isn't just the businesses in downtown Urbana that are feeling the crunch. There have been major obstacles in Champaign as well. Support your locals!

Orbiter wrote on August 11, 2013 at 10:08 am

Indeed, it seems that several assorted "festivals" or events in downtown Champaign had the streets closed, which had the effect of preventing customers from seeing and getting to the events. When streets are closed, I detour the entire area, and never even see that something is going on.


In contrast, more recently, Champaign has utilized smaller musical venues (a handful of street corners) on Fridays without closing the roads, and it has lent a very festive and enjoyable atmosphere to the area. It seems to me that sponsoring a smattering of such performances made the entire downtown more like a wide-open, free entertainment district, and the local pubs and eateries seemed to be faring well.  A similar setup could be arranged for Urbana.   Public music and art are great things.


Let us not forget: Whether received at home or in public, art, theatre, music, recreation (incl. spectator sports) & socializing are the REASONS we work hard the rest of the time.  Add worship, for some folks.  If we cannot relax and enjoy aesthetics, beauty and excitement--if we cannot find social interaction, love, and enjoy the pleasantries of life, then we work merely to feed and house ourselves.  Which is only one step above the life of a mindless drone.  It is these other elements that make human life worth living!