Corner merchants want Cavalier pie

When UVA students getting ready for next semester haul an armload of used textbooks to the counter of the Student Book Store and slap down a piece of plastic, they will be in for a surprise.

Their money, represented by the plastic "Cavalier Advantage" card, isn't good at the Corner establishment.

The "Cavalier Advantage" program works this way: parents deposit funds in University accounts which students can access using the card. Upwards of 50 students a day come to the Student Book Store believing that they can pay for their textbooks with the card, according to John Kelm, manager and co-owner of the store.

When they find that the store is not part of the University-administered system, which limits participation to on-Grounds businesses, the students, disappointed and frustrated, return the used books to the shelves and trudge up to the University Book Store, where the books are allegedly pricier, but where the Cavalier Advantage card is accepted.

Students aren't the only ones disappointed and frustrated. Kelm believes the Cavalier Advantage program promotes "an unlevel playing field."

Things have been heating up since the fall of 1993, when UVA unveiled a sparkling new bookstore atop its new Emmet Street parking garage, an example of UVA's "increasingly sophisticated" expansion of on-Grounds businesses.

"My fellow merchants and I," says Kelm, "certainly thrive on the exciting competition which has resulted." But the Cavalier Advantage program, says Kelm, "negatively impacts students and their parents."

It might also hurt the Corner. The March, 1997, closing of Follett's/Anderson Brothers Bookstore, in business since 1876, was widely blamed on UVA's power to keep student book dollars on Grounds. The venerable storefront stood vacant until earlier this year when Plan 9 Records moved in.

"Corner merchants have approached the University numerous times over the last four years requesting access," says Kelm, noting that other state schools, such as Virginia Tech and James Madison University, included local businesses in their student debit card systems right from the start. Why has UVA resisted?

"It's just been a logistical thing," theorizes Mark Lorenzoni, owner of Ragged Mountain Running Shop and former Corner spokesman. "We've had a very good neighbor relationship with the University. So I have to believe that there's a legitimate reason."

Rich Kovatch, UVA's associate vice president of finance, says UVA doesn't want to complicate things by extending the Cavalier Advantage program to local businesses. "The University's position," Kovatch says, "has been that the program was designed to provide access to students to services provided by the University."

That was easy enough to believe– until this past semester, when students were given the opportunity to use Plus Dollars, a program similar to Cavalier Advantage run by the dining services, to order from two local Domino's Pizzas.

"Do they believe pizza should have priority over textbooks?" asks Kelm. "To me, that's favoring some privately owned businesses over others."

It turns out, however, that it's not the University per se that's philandering with Domino's behind the Corner's back. Plus Dollars is organized by University Dining Services, an Aramark-run company that has already brought to Grounds such vendors as Chik-Fil-A and Freshens' Yogurt.

"They found it more cost effective to use Domino's than to implement their own pizza delivery service," says Kovatch.

Still, Corner merchants would like to see a similar program enacted that would include them in Cavalier Advantage. If students already assume they can use the card off Grounds, Kelm and Lorenzoni would like to make it a reality.

"It's to the University's advantage to have the Corner shopping district as healthy as possible," says Lorenzoni, who would like to see UVA set up a pilot program including a few Corner merchants. "When the Corner's healthy, the University's healthy also."