October 18, 2006

Collegetown’s Kinney Drugs Closes; Residents Concerned

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An amalgam of distress and nostalgia overwhelmed both Cornell students and Ithaca residents when long-time Collegetown pharmacy and drug store, Kinney Drugs, announced its sudden closure last week.
“Kinney Drugs provided students living in Collegetown with a major convenience,” said Mary Tomlan, a former part-time employee of Kinney and member of the Ithaca Common Council. “I am very concerned about the loss. Collegetown should be able to serve commercially all people who live there.”
“I was a frequent customer of Kinney,” said Mackenzie Snyder ’08. “There’s not really a good replacement for it in Collegetown, which is disappointing.”
After occupying the storefront of 307 College Avenue for the past two years, Kinney Drugs is consolidating its two Ithaca branches into a single downtown franchise located at 513 North Cayuga Street. All Collegetown customers’ prescriptions are being transferred to the store downtown, according to Kevin Austin, former manager of the Collegetown branch.
The exact causes of Kinney’s Collegetown closure are unknown amongst the seven former employees, two of whom were students. Employees said, however, that the general problems that affect small town pharmacies everywhere are applicable to Kinney. These problems include the growing popularity of mail-order prescriptions, as well as intensifying competition amongst stores for customers, given the ever-increasing number of prescription-selling facilities.
Gannett, Cornell’s on-campus health service for students and faculty, may have presented a source of outside competition for Kinney. Its direct impact on Kinney’s business, however, is controversial and unconfirmed by the pharmacy’s managerial staff. Nevertheless, a correlation exists between Gannett’s increasing role as a full-pharmacy and the decline of Kinney’s success.
“There were fewer student customers in the drug store after [Gannett’s selling of prescriptions] occurred, but Gannett’s impact on Kinney is analogous to other things,” said Tomlan, who was unable to offer numerical proof for the difference in business before and after Gannett made this move.
Kinney’s developing hardships were confirmed by the analysis of Jim Wuest, vice president of marketing for all of Kinney Drugs, a corporation that owns pharmaceutical branches throughout the central New York area.
“We did not have enough business to support the store,” he said. “The decision was made a while ago. We gave the store some time, and business didn’t turn around.”
Aside from offering a large variety of food products, toiletries, magazines and periodicals, money-wiring opportunities and prescription medications to its customers, Kinney Drugs, according to Tomlan and Austin, was much more than a commercial retailer.
“We definitely had a steady group of people we served,” Austin said. “Our customers represented a mix of both students and local residents.”
“As an employee, I felt a sense of community amongst the frequent shoppers at our store. We would get to know students well during their college careers. They became individuals with stories to us, rather than just customers,” Tomlan said.
While Collegetown residents may miss the presence of a drug store and pharmacy, the problems that Kinney faced were as much a reflection of competition as they were of the difficult nature of sustaining a commercial retail business in Collegetown. As a member of the Common Council, the legislative governing body of Ithaca, Tomlan is aware of the cutthroat and challenging nature of maintaining a successful business in Collegetown.
“While the density of Collegetown’s population provides a great opportunity for store owners, its dispersal over the summer months and winter break presents a great challenge,” she said. “Business doesn’t roll in the door automatically during those months.”
Although the high Collegetown rents provoke continual discussion and debate amongst students and retailers, there is no indication that real estate prices had any impact on Kinney Drug’s business. City government has little control over rent prices, but the Common Council is actively trying to ensure that empty lots are leased and occupied.
“There are efforts being taken to get additional business to come to Collegetown,” Tomlan said.
As the quick turnover and disproportionate number of vacant store fronts throughout the small retail area of Collegetown is clear, Tomlan notes that the Common Council is working on capitalizing the unique potential which Collegetown offers to students.
“A mission of the Common Council is to have neighborhoods that work for the residents who live there. Collegetown is great in that there are necessary goods and services within walking distance from each other and from many of the residential complexes — it provides a major convenience if run smoothly,” she said.