Cumberland Avenue, colloquially known as "the Strip," is under threat.
Confirmed by Jeff Maples, senior associate vice chancellor for finance and administration, two restaurant franchises, Panda Express and Raising Canes, will soon open on Cumberland Avenue. Both will be privately owned by Aramark and potentially accept student balances, as other Aramark locations do.
This competitive advantage over other merchants on the Strip has sparked serious discussion between the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association.
Rob Wynkoop, owner of Gyrene Burger and member of CAMA, was determined to plant his company on the Strip due to its reputation within the community and the university area. But his research on the area was nothing short of discouraging.
Recently, Penn Station Subs, a staple on Cumberland Avenue, was forced to relocate due to lost business. The effect of added competition could complicate an already growing problem.
"When a couple of your friends want to get a Gyrene Burger, but one can't go because all they have is money in their dining dollars left, it makes a difference," Wynkoop said.
Recently, Maples and CAMA began discussing a plan to help merchants and students maintain the Strip's lively atmosphere by allowing university accounts, like Dining Dollars or AllStar balances, to be accepted at locations beyond campus boundaries.
Still in the earliest stages of consideration, Wynkoop fears delays in approving the plans.
"The turnover on the Strip with businesses opening and closing is much higher than other college towns; we don't have any sort of integration with the university," Wynkoop said. "Cumberland Avenue is very much a part of the university. When [students] see 20 vacant businesses, it doesn't bode well for the university as a whole."
Maples cautioned that merchants have just begun exploring possibilities and a laid out plan is still "a long way off."
"I want to do it right," Maples said. "I don't want to rush into it."
Despite the potential financial cost of contracting with the university, Wynkoop and other CAMA merchants are willing to make the investment.
"We know that there will have to be a commission paid to the university or something," Wynkoop said. "We welcome that. We just want to be included."
Geoffrey Smith, a junior majoring in nutrition and food science, admitted he has witnessed a decline in the Strip's atmosphere and service.
"The Strip definitely isn't what it used to be," Smith said. "It's not as much as a destination for students as it used to be. ... Maybe if they started taking student accounts and becoming more connected with the university and students, it could be less seemingly dead."
Given that other public universities, such as the University of Kentucky and the University of South Carolina, offer local restaurants the ability to accept university accounts, freshman Alyssa Loveday did not anticipate the lack of partnership between community and school.
"I basically assumed that restaurants on the Strip would take Dining Dollars," Loveday, a freshman majoring in psychology, said. "Cumberland [Avenue] has a reputation like any college town's core but at the same time, it's obviously missing something.
"... It's never nice to feel like you're limited in options, too."
Due to Papa John's ability to accept university balances, other delivery services frequently encounter confusion.
"People call or are confused all the time, and I have to explain that most restaurants, actually all restaurants on the Strip, don't take Dining Dollars," Kristina Sarten, a senior majoring in anthropology and psychology and an employee at Jimmy John's, said.
Despite the potential for financial ruin, Wynkoop expressed that his sole concern lies in restoring the Strip to its former glory and re-establishing Knoxville as the college town it once was.
"It would allow Cumberland to thrive and become that vibrant college strip," Wynkoop said. "With all the construction and everything that's going on to make Cumberland a destination, I can only see this as being a positive impact on the university."