Columbia businesses, residents see possible downtown Wi-Fi as benefit

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 | 2:07 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Patrons of downtown Columbia could see free Wi-Fi in their future, pending decisions about the spending of new tax revenue.

Last week, downtown voters approved a new sales tax for purchases made in The District. City officials said they believe the half-cent sales tax increase, which goes into effect April 1, could generate $300,000 per year in revenue.

Some voters suggested using the funds to provide free Wi-Fi within The District. Yet many local businesses, especially restaurants and coffee shops, already offer free Wi-Fi in hopes of attracting more customers and business.

Hot Box Cookies, Red Mango, Lakota Coffee Co. and International Cafe all offer free Wi-Fi, but their owners said they are not opposed to the idea of having it downtown.

Andrew Ducharme, general manager of Lakota, said it would be a relief to not keep paying for Lakota's internet service, but he is unsure if it will have a positive or negative effect on his business.

"Customers will want to get out downtown to use the Internet. They will still come in here. It will probably have a positive effect on business, but what happens when it goes down across downtown?" Ducharme said.

Hot Box Cookies owner Corey Rimmel said although the store's free Wi-Fi is not advertised, he notices a few people a day come in to use it. Usually, they order something, too. 

"I like when people come in the store and when I see more people downtown. It's a great idea if it is offered within The District because it will probably increase my business," Rimmel said.

International Cafe owners Mohamed and Elizabeth Gumati had already heard about the possibility of free Internet downtown. Both support it fully, commenting on how they have been having a lot of Internet problems in their store lately.

"It's a great idea for businesses downtown. We all want and need it," Elizabeth Gumati said.

Keep Columbia Free, a local organization aiming to protect civil liberties, opposed the tax, saying it takes money away from consumers who would otherwise spend it.

In addition to businesses downtown offering free Wi-Fi, MU students have access to campus-wide Internet. Despite this, freshman Kirstin Wintermute still frequents Kaldi's Coffee to eat, drink and use her computer.

"With free Internet, you will definitely see more students downtown as opposed to Memorial Union or the Student Center," Wintermute said.

Freshman Kristina Juhl mostly uses campus Wi-Fi, but she enjoys the access she gets at Starbucks. She said she believes it would be great for downtown Columbia.

Columbia is not the only city that has considered implementing free wireless internet. Lawrence, Kan., Denver, Skokie, Ill., and Yorktown, Ind., all offer free Wi-Fi in their respective downtown areas.

For now, if you are looking for free Wi-Fi, you can find it at Stephens Lake Park, Flat Branch Park and numerous downtown businesses and eateries.

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