Tags: Community Candids
Posted 01.28.16 by Kate
A couple months ago, a truck stopped on Mill Avenue and loaded up all the remaining ASU t-shirts, snacks, postcards, and other items...went the long distance over to College Avenue to fully stock the remaining branch of Campus Corner. For Mike Jennings, this was step one in closing his business of 26 years. We chatted with Mike about the history of Campus Corner, what it meant for him to close his doors, and what he plans to do next.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the startup of Campus Corner over 26 years ago.
A: I was living in Champaign, Illinois and managing a chain store called Discount Den and they asked me to move here to open and manage a new store. We started on College Avenue in 1989 in a store that had been called “Campus Drugs.” I quickly bought into the company and got out from under the chain concept and started Campus Corner. In 1993 I had an opportunity to open a 2nd location on Mill Avenue (started in the space where Happy Healthy High Horny Herbs is today, but moved over a few years later to 603 S. Mill where it remained). The 2nd store just seemed like a good fit. It was 3 blocks away, made inventory easier because there were two locations to balance each other out, and the foot traffic on Mill was noticeably different from the foot traffic on College. It seemed like we wouldn’t cannibalize the initial store, because we noticed different people at different times of day on College. To this day, I am pretty sure the two stores supported each other and never competed.
Q: What was Downtown Tempe like 26 years ago?
A: In those early years, downtown had just gone through a revitalization. Chain stores like Gap and Bath and Body Works were on Mill Avenue. I was on the DTC Board then and we had a big problem with crime, gangs and cruising. We worked with police to establish a cruising ordinance and I was also on the Sidewalk Vending Committee from 2001 to 2003 when we used to actually audition the street performers. Also, back then the Mill Avenue Merchants Association and the DTC were competitive and MAMA put on the Tempe Festival of the Arts.
Q: And was the Tempe Festival of the Arts very different in those days?
A: The art festival was pretty similar then as it is today. We have maintained the same feel over the years even though the footprint has evolved over time. And it was just as popular back then as it is now. There have always been talks about whether or not we need it to make our downtown stronger...seems like the conversation is cyclical. But I believe it is a solid event that does us all good, even if we don’t see a direct impact on those event days.
Q: Now move us through the years, how has downtown changed?
A: Parking is currently the best it has ever been and I feel safer as a merchant and as a private citizen than I ever have. I love the Safety-T-Patrol and the Clean Team. If I were the czar of downtown I would add more things for older people (over 20’s) but it seems like even that is coming along. College and Farmer seem to be picking up some of that demographic as well. The streets are very busy at night and there is a strong police presence -- they seem to have it under control. Years ago there was less of a sense of control but now it feels very safe to me, even with the larger crowds.
Q: Describe retail over the last few decades – and why you decided to close.
A: Bad times - at the bottom of the recession, tourism was down, student shoppers were holding back on spending and I almost didn’t make it for about two years, but I slowly climbed out of that hole and the last few years have been good. But the retail climate has changed over the years with the onset of the internet. 12 years ago if you wanted an ASU t-shirt you had to go to a store to purchase it, but now you just open your phone. I am only closing now because the building on College Avenue is to be completely redeveloped. This is one of the last underutilized pieces of property with a single level building. The building is old and needs work and we are excited to see what new, modern asset will come from this space. It just so happened that my lease on Mill Avenue ended in October and the business model is not as efficient with only the one location, so I figured it was time to enter my next era.
Q: What are you going to miss most about the businesses?
A: Interaction with the different types of people down here. From ASU students, faculty, staff, to the downtown employees, City of Tempe folks, Chase employees, bar and restaurant employees -- the people are what makes this place so great. And I really enjoy the tourists...we often had tourists visiting the stores, so I spent my days as an ambassador for downtown. Many hours were spent giving directions and suggestions to travelers from all over the country in those stores.
Q: What are you thrilled to be relieved of?
A: For sure it will be a relief to not be responsible for everything. From a burglar alarm at 3am, to someone calling in sick, to equipment breaking down, it was always up to me to answer the call. It will be nice to take a break from the constant “on-call” demands.
Q: Funniest memory in 26 years?
A: Yes – this was funny to me. I pulled up to work early and a guy working for the power company was working on the building. I got out of my truck and he said, “your power’s out and you need to call an electrician - I can’t help you.” I was taken aback and anxious to figure out my next move. I walked into the store and the power was fine. A few minutes later I wandered outside and Bob, who owned The Varsity Book Exchange, looked stressed. His power was out but no one had spoken to him about it. I told him to call an electrician because the power company had already been here and couldn’t help him. Bob and I were good friends and later we laughed about this. He was in business for 40 years. I think he passed away 10 years ago. Interesting how things change.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I'm going to take a little time off and then somehow I'm going to find a normal 9-5 job. I’ll be winding down for the next month or so. It's amazing how supportive people have been. Literally, over 100 people made comments to me in the days before the Mill Avenue store closed. One guy shook his head and said, “I started working for the city 20 years ago and I can’t imagine Mill Avenue without Campus Corner. You are going to be missed on Mill Avenue!”
Q: Anything else you want people to know?
A: I wish people would understand better what the City controls and what the market controls. I hear from people often, including people in the shops, my neighbors, people in the newspaper, etc...comments such as “Why doesn’t the city put more small businesses downtown? Why doesn’t the City make parking free? Why doesn’t the City put a grocery store downtown? In my opinion, the City has little to do with it and there are lots of independent landowners here -- the city can’t fully control the uses of every building downtown. And I don’t think that we want the government controlling our commercial district. It’s nice to have some help, but we don’t want our city controlling what tenant goes where. It is too bad that the city gets blamed when something goes out of business or a concept doesn’t come to fruition.