COVID-19 turned college towns into ghost towns and businesses are struggling to survive

AMHERST, Mass. — For more than a century, the office supply store A.J. Hastings has opened its doors to the public every day without fail, a community staple in a quintessential college town.

That streak endured through the 1918 flu and world wars, national holidays and even a move. “Through thick and thin,” said Sharon Povinelli, who co-owns the store with her wife, Mary Broll.

Located in the heart of Amherst, the store has been a mainstay for students at Amherst College and Hampshire College, and the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts.

“We’ve been here almost as long as the universities here,” Povinelli said.

The third-generation-owned business never broke its opening streak — until the coronavirus pandemic hit. A.J. Hastings, along with millions of other businesses across the country, closed in March to curb the spread of COVID-19, while colleges shut down their campuses and turned to remote learning.

A.J. Hastings co-owners Mary Proll and Sharon Povinelli outside their office supply store in Amherst, Mass. (Courtesy Sharon Povinelli)
A.J. Hastings co-owners Mary Proll and Sharon Povinelli outside their office supply store in Amherst, Mass. (Courtesy Sharon Povinelli)

Since closing its doors to customers, the store has transitioned to curbside pickup and internet sales while the physical location goes through renovations to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Financial strain from COVID-19 has been especially acute for college towns like Amherst, where the loss of students has meant the loss of money they poured into local economies. Undergraduate students — about 25,000 at the three schools combined — made up nearly three-quarters of Amherst’s total population. That population largely left Amherst when the campuses closed.

“What we’re seeing now is a kind of ghost town,” said Gabrielle Gould, executive director at the Amherst Business Improvement District. “It was like a light switch turned off.”

Along with COVID-19, college towns suffered major losses in income, employment and population.

“When a university sneezes, the town gets pneumonia. Now when the university has pneumonia, what does that mean for the town?” Stephen Gavazzi, professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, said. “College towns have shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and apartments entirely dependent on students.”

Now, as campuses are unveiling their reopening plans to only hold a fraction of their usual capacity this fall, college towns face an existential threat.

As of July 10, 58 percent of colleges will offer in-person instruction, 9 percent are providing strictly online classes and 27 percent are proposing a hybrid model for the fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking college reopening plans. Experts say most teaching will be remote as classrooms will reduce occupancy to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Economies of college towns follow the ebb and flow of students. When students return for the fall semester, they rent apartments, buy books and school supplies, eat at restaurants and, if they’re of legal age, drink at bars. Sporting events and social gatherings bring in enormous crowds and increase revenue for the local economy.

While college towns plan for periods of decline during the winter and summer when many students are away from campus, those slowdowns were always seen as an exception — no one could have predicted a prematurely ended spring semester or a fall without students.

Many universities lost revenue they were initially banking on from graduation, alumni and sports events, Gavazzi said. “Now, it’s wildly optimistic that universities will offer in-person instruction for a long time. It’s my belief that students will have trouble following health protocols, and we’ll have to revert back to online learning,” he said.

“Without a doubt, college towns are going to hurt regardless.”

In Ithaca, located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, just about everyone has some connection to the town’s campuses, Cornell University and Ithaca College. Mayor Svante Myrick said he was prepared to cut $14 million from the city’s $70 million budget and has already furloughed a quarter of employees. Last month, the city passed a resolution asking the state to allow Myrick to cancel rent for three months.

University of Michigan students contribute almost $95 million a year in discretionary spending to the local economy in Ann Arbor, according to the university.

Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s, an iconic deli company that owns multiple operations throughout Ann Arbor, said he has furloughed almost a third of its staff from 700 to 450, and estimated that sales were 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“There are many businesses that are doing much worse,” Weinzweig said.

The restaurant Logan, an Ann Arbor fixture, closed down after 16 years. Aut Bar, an LGBTQ mainstay, is shutting down after 25 years. And after 60 years of operation, Treasure Mart, a popular antique store, is closing its doors permanently.

“It’s only going to get worse because nobody, not even really the school, knows how many students will come back to school,” Weinzweig said.

In Amherst, where the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts is offering almost all remote classes, Gould said she expects 30% of businesses to shut down within the next year. A.J. Hastings saw an 80 percent decrease in sales between the months of March and June, compared to the same time frame last year. Amherst Books, a locally owned, independent bookstore, makes almost 60 percent of its annual sales in September — a number it doesn’t expect to come close to this fall.

Because there isn’t a way to get an accurate headcount of returning students, it’s uncertain how universities and college towns alike will compensate for their losses this fall. But for schools, towns and businesses, one thing remains clear: None of them expect to fully recover any time soon.

The census is another cause for concern. Every decade, the national headcount determines the number of seats each state sends to the U.S. House of Representatives and how much federal funding is distributed throughout local and state governments. College towns reported a significant undercount because students leaving campus early happened to coincide at the same time as the response window for this year’s U.S. census.

In Athens, Ohio, students at Ohio University make up three quarters of the population. A census without this population could slash the official headcount from 24,000 down to 6,000 people. For Ithaca, a remote college town, half of the population consists of students — meaning the population count minus students could shrink from 31,000 to as few as 15,500.

“If we don’t get a good headcount of those students, we could lose $40 million over the course of 10 years,” Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said. “Those grants fund community development, family and senior services and school systems.”

To mitigate the economic harm caused by the pandemic and remote learning, Patterson said Athens is creating new mountain trails in the Wayne National Forest to diversify the local economy and increase tourism independent of Ohio University.

“We really have to think creatively and differently in these communities where the university is our only main source of revenue,” he said. Patterson said he understood that the uptick in coronavirus cases across the country was a growing concern, but any attempt to bolster the local economy was a “silver lining.”

Gould expressed similar sentiments, saying that ultimately, since a COVID-19 vaccine remains too far to be seen, small businesses and college towns need more help from the federal government. Back in April, some businesses were able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan — an emergency fund for small businesses with fewer than 500 employees — but for many, that money has already dried up.

In early May, Gould set up a micro-grant nonprofit organization, the Downtown Amherst Foundation, to help cover the financial losses small businesses had suffered from the pandemic. Since its inception, the nonprofit has raised more than $300,000 to distribute to over 60 small businesses, including PPE and outdoor dining infrastructure expenses.

“We’re resilient, and we’re doing the best we can to help each other as a community under these circumstances,” Gould said. “It’s like plugging holes with chewing gum on a sinking boat.”

“Thankfully, no businesses have permanently closed, but with much fewer students returning, I don’t know how much longer we can survive,” she said.

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