Will Density Save Dinkytown?

Will Density Save Dinkytown?

The residential population near the U of M is skyrocketing, but businesses are still searching for customers.

Dinkytown and Stadium Village are the commercial core of the University of Minnesota neighborhoods, but until recently, only students lived there, and the U was predominantly a commuter campus. But there’s been an increase of nearly 6,000 multifamily housing units in the last 10 years—half of which debuted in the last five—and high-rise buildings continue to sprout. That’s a lot of new customers for area businesses, right?

Historic Businesses DinkytownNot exactly, according to Alison Kirwin, owner of Al’s Breakfast, a fixture in Dinkytown since the 1950s. Al’s is a destination eatery on 14th Avenue, the “eat street” of Dinkytown. But Al’s, which once boasted a scrip system where parents bought credits for their students, no longer caters to 18- to 25-year-olds.

“Students only have so much money. If you’re assuming that 5,000 students are going to eat [here] every day because they live in the area, that’s a huge overestimation,” Kirwin says. Her older customers are the ones with disposable income, she says. 

Kirwin is not alone. Raising Cane’s, known for its fried chicken fingers and dipping sauce, with two U of M locations, is popular with students, but looks outside the neighborhood to thrive. “We spend a lot of our time marketing to the [non-student] community. We go to South Minneapolis, we go to North Minneapolis,” says Kent Kramp, Cane’s franchisee and vice president of the Dinkytown Business Alliance. 

“On paper, Dinkytown looks like a terrific area. [But] summertime and the winter break are a difficult time to operate…”

—Kent Kramp, raising Cane’s franchisee, vice president of the Dinkytown Business Alliance

What happens if you market solely to the student population? Those businesses rarely survive, says Kramp. “On paper, Dinkytown looks like a terrific area. [But] summertime and the winter break are a difficult time to operate,” he says. The pandemic, he notes, rocked businesses, as the student population vanished for months. Kramp says first-year attrition of businesses near the U is near 90%, and only 20% of the survivors make it in the long haul. “Businesses that have found success have a continuous stream of business,” he says, “even when the students leave.” 

And the development of high-rise apartment buildings on former surface parking lots has been problematic for many businesses. “There’s a ton of construction, traffic, and they’ve taken a lot of parking spots to be able to do all these things. That’s income that we will never regain,” says Kirwin. 

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With Dinkytown and Stadium Village’s unique customer base, Kirwin says locating there is a risk in any business niche. “The [ones] that have been able to hang around have been places that have been around forever,” she says, “with tons of regulars that they’ve cultivated over decades.”