September 10, 2007

Stores Clamor for City Bucks Prize

Print More

Number 68 on the infamous list of “161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do” is buy beer at Jason’s in Collegetown and charge it to City Bucks. Most Cornell students know that they can use part of their Cornell meal plan to purchase alcohol, but most do not know the ins and outs of the program and how the Univ­ersity benefits.
Ci­ty Bucks is Cor­nell’s off-campus debit meal plan that allows students to make purchases at participating businesses in Ithaca with a debit account. As a registered student, each Cornellian has a City Bucks account. The account can be activated by adding money, which is done online through the Cornell Dining website.
“City Bucks is a service by Cornell Dining that expands the dining services and options at Cornell. City Bucks makes it easier for those who choose to eat off campus. For students the convenience and simplicity of being able to use your Cornell ID card as an alternative mean of payment is beneficial,” said Frank Carollo, City Bucks and vending liaison for Cornell Dining.
According to Carollo, Cornell adopted the City Bucks dining option in spring 2002. The program started as a trial with about a dozen restaurants participating. With the program’s sudden popularity and success, the list of participating businesses grew to over forty in the 2003-2004 school year. Since then, a few merchants have dropped out, and the list is indefinitely held at 37 with no anticipated plans of growth.
“We’re not taking any applications for new members. Evidently, a number of restaurants were put on waiting lists in the past several years when we had plans of expanding, but the program was evaluated and put under review. We decided to cap the membership where it’s at now, because that’s the number we can handle,” Carollo said.
Because of this, students living in Collegetown who have replaced their traditional on-campus meal plan with a City Bucks account are at a disadvantage. Less than half of the restaurants in Collegetown are currently unable to acquire a City Bucks membership, limiting those students’ dining choices.
Carollo cited a “lack of resources” as the main reason behind the stagnation of the City Bucks program’s membership. However, the University does take in a percentage of City Bucks sales.
“On total weekly sales, there’s a commission rate ranging anywhere from 4 to 8 percent against the merchant’s City Bucks sales. This charge supports the cost of running the program,” Carollo said.
Although the University relaxes the commission rate over the summer months when sales are low, Carollo also reported that in the fiscal year of 2007, there were well over 100,000 City Bucks transactions in which the sales totaled over 1.6 million dollars.
Shao Ke, owner of two of Collegetown’s staple restaurants, Apollo Chinese Restaurant on College Avenue and Bistro Fry on Dryden Road, said he is frustrated with Cornell Dining’s decision to cap off the program’s membership.
“We call the Campus Life office and they never call back. They say we will be put on a list, and if someone goes out of business then maybe we can get City Bucks. But restaurants that take City Bucks are doing well. They don’t look like they’re about to go out of business anytime soon,” Ke said.
Jen Mattioni, floor manager at Stella’s in Collegetown, which accepts City Bucks, acknowledged an advantage for City Bucks-affiliated restaurants.
“I think having City Bucks brings in more clientele. It’s convenient for the students and their parents,” Mattioni said.
Ariana Fanelly ’09, who lives in Collegetown, described her own experience with the City Bucks program.
“I had City Bucks last year. It was so convenient to go out to dinner and spend the same amount of money that I would in the dining hall. Plus I didn’t have to carry around cash,” Fanelly said. “I didn’t really eat at the places that didn’t take City Bucks.”