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Why is The Drag so empty?

Traffic and shops are pictured along the Drag on Guadalupe Street.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Many of the storefronts along The Drag are closed.

When you walk along The Drag, there’s not much to see in terms of businesses. Sure, there’s some hustle and bustle — students walking to and from class, cars rushing by — but many of the storefronts are empty.

As a UT student, I’ve always wondered why the shopping space right across from one of the biggest universities in Texas is so vacant. Amanda Brainard wondered the same thing when she wrote in to ATXplained back in 2022.

At the time, Amanda’s son was touring college campuses and would frequently check out the areas around schools.

“It seems that compared to all these other schools, The Drag next to UT just doesn't hold a candle to a lot of other places,” Amanda said. “It kind of feels like an area in decline.”

An empty building on Guadalupe St. west of the UT Campus on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Lorianne Willett/KUT News
Lorianne Willett
KUT News
An empty building on Guadalupe Street west of the UT campus.

The reason behind the decline

Bryan McMurrey, a retail broker for Transwestern Real Estate, has been a leasing agent on The Drag for 20 years. He said the increase in rent is a major reason so many stores close. In the last 10 years, rents have jumped from $40 a square foot per year to about $60. So, if a space is 5,000 square feet, that’s $300,000 in rent every year.

McMurrey said that’s a lot of money for retailers to dish out.

"When rents are that high, you've got to really, really do well to be able to sustain that type of retail space."
Bryan McMurrey, retail broker for Transwestern Real Estate

“When rents are that high, you've got to really, really do well to be able to sustain that type of retail space,” he said.

Another reason The Drag is so dead is because of the unpredictable clientele. When students are around, McMurrey said, there’s foot traffic and business can be good. Then comes May, when the semester ends and the students head home for the summer, leaving The Drag and its businesses behind.

Dobbins Hillhouse has co-owned Jenn’s Copies at the corner of Dean Keeton and Guadalupe for 20 years. He says having to plan for an eight- or nine-month year is hard on business owners and that he’s had to adjust to the ebbs and flows of this business cycle.

“We understand that cycle and go through it and plan for it,” Hillhouse said.

Kat Key owns C.Jane, a boutique that’s been on The Drag since 2006. She bought the business from its original owner in 2019 and said the retail cycle on The Drag has been hard to handle — not just because of the transient nature of customers, but of employees, too. Because Key employs a lot of students, she is constantly having to hire and rehire people.

“You know, they come as freshmen and you get about four years and then they leave,” she said.

Fluctuations in foot traffic and employees aside, Key said she has learned how to deal with the business cycle on The Drag in her own way. Keeping up with the latest trends, advertising in the UT dorms, handing out flyers during orientation and carrying that oh-so-specific shade of burnt orange, she says, keeps C. Jane relevant.

The pandemic: a turning point

But, even with all that planning, all that outreach, nothing could have prepared Key for the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other businesses, C.Jane struggled.

Without the foot traffic, Key said C.Jane became almost obsolete. That didn’t last forever, though.

“Luckily, the students came back and the business came back as well,” she said.

Even though it’s been challenging, Key says she loves having her store across the street from one of her favorite places — UT Austin. Key comes from a long line of Longhorns and went to UT in the ‘90s. When asked why she decided to keep her boutique on The Drag, she said she couldn’t imagine having it anywhere else.

“I remember coming down here since I was a child,” she said. “It's wonderful that I get to be across from the University of Texas, a place I love so much and have loved through so many different phases of my life. I'm very lucky to be able to be down here.”

Key uses her store to foster a sense of community for tourists, campus newcomers and UT alumni alike. She acts as the keeper of this place to maintain the memory of what The Drag was.

“I feel like this is maybe one of the last stores where you can actually go in and find someone who even remembers what it used to be like,” she said.

Hope for The Drag’s legacy

It’s clear that having a business on The Drag is no easy feat. Bryan, the leasing agent, said he is hopeful The Drag will someday be the booming, bustling hub it once was.

“I think with the right vision, it can become something really great,” he said. “That's one of the reasons why I still work down there, because it's something that I personally take pride in.”

Kat says she shares the same hope. She believes in the magic of this place. For her, The Drag is more than a rundown, boarded-up street. It’s home. A place where she grew up. A place she takes pride in. A place she hopes to see flourish again.

“Come down. Show your kids where you used to shop,” Kat said.” “Even if it's just for memories, I feel like it's important to keep The Drag alive.”

Hasina Shah is a former KUT intern.

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