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

AMHERST, Mass. – For more than a century, the office supply store AJ Hastings has opened its doors to the public every day without fail, a community device in an important university town.

That streak lasted through the 1918 flu and World War, national holidays and even a move. “Through thick and thin,” said Sharon Povinelli, who together owns the store with his wife, Mary Broll.

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


7;ve been here almost as long as the universities here,” Povinelli said.

The third generation owned business never broke its opening stretch – until the coronavirus pandemic hit. AJ Hastings, along with millions of other companies across the country, closed in March to restrict the spread of COVID-19, while colleges closed their campuses and turned to distance education.

AJ Hastings co-owners Mary Proll and Sharon Povinelli outside their office warehouse in Amherst, Mass.With permission from Sharon Povinelli

Since closing its doors to customers, the store has switched to pick-up and internet sales while the physical site is undergoing renovations to comply with social distance guidelines.

Financial strain from COVID-19 has been particularly acute for college towns like Amherst, where the loss of students has meant the loss of money they poured into local economies. Students – about 25,000 at the three schools together – make up nearly three-quarters of Amherst’s total population. This population largely left Amherst when the campus closed.

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

Together with COVID-19, university cities suffered major losses in income, employment and population.

“When a university sneezes, the city gets pneumonia. When the university has pneumonia, what does it mean for the city? “Stephen Gavazzi, a professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, said. “College cities have shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and apartments completely dependent on students.”

Now that the campus is unveiling its reopening plans to hold only a fraction of its usual capacity this fall, college towns are facing an existential threat.

As of July 10, 58 percent of colleges will offer personalized instruction, 9 percent will provide strict online courses and 27 percent will propose a hybrid model for the fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks college plans for colleges. Experts say that most classes will be remote because classrooms will reduce the amount of cover to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Economies in higher education cities follow the ebb and flow of students. When students return to the fall term, they rent apartments, buy books and school supplies, eat at restaurants and, if they are of legal age, drink in bars. Sports events and social gatherings bring huge 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, these slowdowns were always viewed as an exception – no one could have predicted a prematurely terminated spring term or a fall without students.

Many universities lost revenue that they originally knocked on from graduates, students and sporting events, Gavazzi said. “Now it is very optimistic that universities will offer personalized instruction for a long time. I believe that students will have trouble following health protocols and that we must return to online learning, ”he said.

“Without a doubt, college towns will hurt regardless.”

In Ithaca, located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, almost everyone has links to the city’s campus, 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 surpassed a quarter of employees. Last month, the city passed a resolution asking the state to allow Myrick to suspend the rent for three months.

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

Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s, an iconic delicatessen that owns several businesses throughout Ann Arbor, said he has surpassed nearly a third of staff from 700 to 450 and estimated sales to be 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“There are many companies that do much worse,” Weinzweig said.

Restaurant Logan, an Ann Arbor fixture, closed after 16 years. Aut Bar, an LGBTQ stand, shuts down after 25 years. And after 60 years of operation, Treasure Mart, a popular antique shop, is closing its doors permanently.

“It will only get worse because no one, not even the school, knows how many students are coming back to school,” Weinzweig said.

In Amherst, where the flagship campus at the University of Massachusetts offers almost all remote classes, Gould said she expects 30% of businesses to be shut down next year. AJ Hastings saw a sales decline of 80 percent between March and June, compared to the same timeframe last year. Amherst Books, a locally owned, independent bookstore, makes nearly 60 percent of its annual sales in September – a number it doesn’t expect to come close this fall.

As there is no way to get a correct percentage of returning students, it is uncertain how both universities and university cities will compensate for their losses this fall. But for schools, cities and businesses, one thing is clear: none of them expect to recover soon.

The census is another cause for concern. Each decade determines the national number of seats each state sends to the U.S. House of Representatives and how much federal funds are distributed across local and state governments. College cities reported a significant deficit as students who left campus early happened to coincide at the same time as the answer window for this year’s US Census.

In Athens, Ohio, students at Ohio University make up three-quarters of the population. A census without this population could reduce the official number from 24,000 to 6,000 people. For Ithaca, a remote metropolitan city, half the population consists of students – which means that the population minus students can shrink from 31,000 to as few as 15,500.

“If we don’t get a good percentage of those students, we could lose $ 40 million in 10 years,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson. “These grants fund community development, family and older services and school systems.”

To mitigate the economic damage caused by the pandemic and distance education, Patterson said Athens is creating new mountain trails in the Wayne National Forest to diversify the local economy and boost tourism independently of Ohio University.

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

Gould expressed similar sentiments, saying that in the end, because a COVID-19 vaccine is still too long to be seen, small businesses and college towns need more help from the federal government. In April, some companies 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 nonprofit micro-grant, the Downtown Amherst Foundation, to help cover the financial losses that small businesses had suffered from the pandemic. Since its inception, ideology has raised more than $ 300,000 to distribute to over 60 small businesses, including PPE and outdoor dining infrastructure.

“We are resilient and we do our best to help each other as a community in these circumstances,” Gould said. “It’s like connecting holes with chewing gum on a sinking boat.”

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

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