When looking at a photo of the Corner from 1987, current students at the University will quickly recognize two business names — College Inn and Littlejohns Deli. Now, as students return to Charlottesville this semester, they will note how little remains besides the structures from that photo taken 34 years ago. The Corner has seen a variety of changes in recent years. Over this past summer alone, College Inn and Sheetz were both closed permanently — Littlejohn’s, Michael’s and Armando’s shut their doors last year during the pandemic. Many of these places served as Charlottesville staples for decades, allowing consumers easy access to flourishing small businesses in the Charlottesville community. Few of the original businesses on the Corner still exist — while some have been replaced by other local businesses, many are now large chains.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disastrous effect on small businesses throughout the country. Stay-at-home orders and a lack of consumers driven by other necessary pandemic restrictions deeply affected local businesses throughout the country, who are less capable of weathering economic downturns than larger corporations.
Further, Black and Latinx owned businesses were disproportionately affected. At the onset of the pandemic, the number of active business owners fell by 22 percent — the number of Black business owners, however, fell by 41 percent and Latinx owners by 32 percent. Black owned businesses were already at a disproportionate risk of financial distress, and the pandemic has only heightened this divide. The introduction of government support throughout the pandemic allowed some businesses to survive, but it wasn’t enough for the over 100,000 small businesses throughout the country that were forced to shut their doors permanently.
In Albemarle County, property leases over $1,000 a month rose 16 percent between 2010 to 2019. Nearly a decade ago, 45 percent of all leases were above the $1,000 threshold. In 2019, Albemarle resided at 61 percent of property leases being over $1,000 — this is problematic. If rent continues to trend upward with time, the future of small business on the Corner looks bleak. Larger business chains, compared to small local businesses, have more resources at their disposal to survive economic downturns and high-priced property markets.
When it was first announced that College Inn — a staple to the Charlottesville community for over five decades — was closing, students and community members speculated about what would replace the iconic restaurant. It was then announced that Chipotle — a large chain with nearly 3,000 locations nationwide, including two already in Charlottesville — would potentially take up the spot on the Corner. Further, Insomnia Cookies, Sheetz, Chase Bank, CVS and Starbucks all add to the list of chains that either have occupied or currently occupy the Corner. The Corner — historically known for its collection of local businesses — is increasingly catering to large corporations.
It is also worth noting the University uses one of the spaces on the Corner for its University Police Department. The University takes up this space on the Corner — a space that could otherwise be used to showcase local business — as an additional location for a police force with a headquarters just down the road. The University needs to understand the responsibility it should feel towards the local community — and this includes supporting the local businesses that were once able to thrive on the Corner, fueled in part by a relationship with University students.
The recent removal of Sheetz opens a unique opportunity to bring local businesses back to the Corner. Rather than replacing Sheetz with a similar large chain, we should replace Sheetz with a local business. As consumers, we must remember that our spending habits can influence the businesses that come and go on the Corner. However, the harsh reality is that with the departure of corporations, we will likely see spaces filled by more big business.
As we return to Grounds and begin to venture out of our homes more often, we should be sure to do what we can to support local businesses in Charlottesville. When it comes to our shopping and eating habits, shopping local — particularly businesses owned by Black and Indigenous People of Color in the community — is vital. As a community, we should be custodians working towards ensuring the survival of local small businesses. Otherwise, a photo of the Corner 30 years from now will be unrecognizable.
The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors, their Senior Associate and an Opinion Columnist. The board can be reached at email@example.com.