Growing up in the area, I remember much about Storrs Center. Before construction, it was just a handful of shops in a slightly rundown area. As I began high school at Edwin O. Smith, however, construction was already underway: large buildings still covered in plastic, rumors of new shops, and the constant sounds of work. It was exciting to see all this development being done to better the region, especially when it felt so tight-knit. It was almost as if Mansfield wasn’t condemned to the rural fate of much of Eastern Connecticut. In junior year of high school, I was ecstatic to finally be allowed to leave the school building for breaks and lunch. I would go out to eat with my friends at all the different places in Storrs Center (likely much more often than I should have) and see even more expansion. By my senior year of high school, though, I became jaded. I felt many of the new stores going up were gimmicky, unnecessary, or inconvenient in location. Storrs Center was overdeveloped.
Within the complex, the majority of shops focus on ready-made food. While many appeal to different niches, there are still 4 pizza shops, 4 (as of last weekend) exclusively dessert establishments, and even 3 Starbucks among the eateries. Already, the consequences of this excessiveness is coming to light. Froyo World shut its doors last Sunday, and Sweet Emotions has already announced its departure from Storrs Center. The issue usually given for these closings is high rent prices brought on by the powers that be, but this explanation ignores the root cause: many of these stores are competing for a set not big enough to sustain them all.
There are three main groups that are likely to eat in at Storrs Center: college students, high school students, and Mansfield residents. For college students, the main consideration is often money. This is especially true for students with a meal plan, who must consider just going to a dining hall (even the much-maligned one nearby in Buckley) to save money for other interests. High school students are often more concerned with convenience. Mansfield residents, finally, are a more diverse group, but are more likely to think about experience than the other groups. While these groups seem to have wide enough interests for all the stores in Storrs, the splintering of the groups and their wants means that each type of place has less demand. So, while there may be enough to support a luxury dessert place (or a café, cheap pizza shop, etc.), there is not enough to support multiple. The choice of many eateries to try to differentiate themselves with very niche specialties or even gimmicks also is not effective long term. There are many places in Storrs Center that I and others would go to once and not return, and every time it is because the niche has been exhausted and is no longer captivating. Not to speak too ill of the dead, but this was the case for both Froyo World and Sweet Emotions. These two stores were not problematic in particular but rather demonstrative of the larger problem. I envision many places also meeting their ends and ultimately the stagnation of Storrs Center.
What, then, could save Storrs Center from this fate? The other issue with the plaza is the lack of diversity in stores. While there are non-food shops and resources, many of these are specialized buildings and not hobby or interest stores. There could easily be room for a music store, consignment shop, or perhaps another, more broad hobby shop to replace Friendly Fire (which fell for reasons other than financial). Not only could places like these bring some much-needed variety, but they are also good communal settings. Music stores allow the experienced to reach out and aid the beginner. Hobby shops often host events to bring like-minded people together. Even a consignment shop can be a fun, quirky place at which customers can make an experience. Transforming Storrs Center from the restaurant labyrinth it has become would go a long way to realizing the original goals and excitement of the project in general, a place for both profit and community.
Peter Fenteany is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.