Commentary: Springfield Doesn’t Want to Let Go of the Fort

It was a surreal scene at the Student Price restaurant (the Fort) toward the end of last week.

Late afternoon on Thursday, just a few days after the news broke that the landmark would be closing by week’s end, hoping to reopen under new ownership later in the summer, there were lines out the door and down the street to get in.

Patrons had to use valet parking because there were no spaces available anywhere near the establishment. Inside, the crowds at the bars were three or four deep. People were told that the odds of getting a table were slim to none. Everywhere, patrons were using their cell phones to take photos of their favorite bartender or the famous picture of Rupprecht Scherff, the long-time owner and chief greeter, or of themselves in front of the bar. People who, a few weeks earlier, would have casually discarded that Student Prince-embossed drink stirrer without giving matters a second thought, were now putting them in their purses and taking them home.

In every corner, the questions and the conversations were the same. “Who’s going to buy the place?” “What will Springfield be like without the Fort?” “How much do you think those steins are worth?”

On Friday, at least one of those questions was answered. Peter Picknelly, CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines, will step in and buy the landmark. The current plan is to shut down for a few months, hire a manager, do some work inside, and make what Picknelly called “tweaks.” He told the local paper that he’ll likely take pig’s knuckles off the menu and take some other steps to “modernize” it, while otherwise keeping the Student Prince intact.

We wish him well, because it will likely take more than tweaks to keep the restaurant part of the local landscape. Indeed, Rudi Scherff, one of the owners who decided it was time to sell, wasn’t wrong when he said times were changing — for the worse. He was right on the money when he noted that fewer people are working in the downtown office towers today, and far fewer are inclined to commit the hour it takes to walk three or four blocks, sit at a table, order lunch, and then eat it. And he was correct when he said that the pending I-91 viaduct-reconstruction project will be a nightmare for downtown business owners, many of whom are already just hanging on.

The scene at the Student Prince Thursday was part nostalgia, part saying goodbye to a piece of the city’s history, and part indication that the city doesn’t want to let go like it did with Johnson’s Bookstore, Steiger’s, Forbes & Wallace, and other downtown icons. There was little that Springfield and the surrounding region could do about those losses; the handwriting was on the wall. There might be something they can do here, though. It may not be too late.

People just have to step up and be supportive long before the drink stirrers become coveted souvenirs.

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