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An Unprecedented Fall: The return of Penn State students offers downtown businesses a ray of hope amidst economic and health concerns

by on September 02, 2020 5:37 PM

During normal times, there is a predictable rhythm to life in State College. After a busy graduation weekend each May, the vibrant downtown streets abruptly shift into a sleepy state that lasts throughout the summer months, punctuated only by one bustling weekend in mid-July, when the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts takes place. Summer-session students, “townies” looking for a respite from the usual downtown crowds, and a steady flow of families from sports camps and campus orientation visits provide just enough activity to keep the town alive.

If State College seems to doze off during the summer months, the arrival of more than 40,000 students in late August is like an alarm clock that jolts the town awake. And during at least seven autumn weekends each year, the town overflows with 100,000 football fans spending their money at hotels, restaurants, and shops before and after filling Beaver Stadium and the tailgating lots around it.

“It’s like a light switch turning on when the students come back,” says Peter Gardella, owner of D.P. Dough at 401 East Beaver Avenue. “For the last 12 years that I’ve been in business, that light switch has come on automatically. This year, the light switch may come on, but there’s going to be a glitch. Instead of giving me 100 percent power, it’s going to be dim.”

That’s because, after a global pandemic threw campus and downtown State College into that sleepy summer state two months earlier than usual – minus the Arts Festival or the students or the summer camps or the campus visits – this fall semester promises to be as unprecedented and unpredictable as the rest of 2020 has been so far.

Campus reopens

Penn State’s Office of Residence Life is expecting approximately 11,700 students to live on campus this fall. University officials hope to manage their return safely through stringent COVID-19 protocols announced in a virtual town hall meeting on July 30, including the testing of 30,000 students prior to their arrival on Penn State campuses, and random surveillance testing of 700 students, faculty, and staff members each day.

To help with social distancing, some students will be housed in the Nittany Lion Inn, while Eastview Terrace housing is being reserved as a quarantine and isolation space for students who contract COVID-19. Classes are taking place both online and in-person, and students are expected to remain on campus until Thanksgiving break, when all classes will revert to a virtual format to finish the semester.

One unknown was how many off-campus students are returning to State College for the semester, especially when they have the ability to take many of their classes remotely from anywhere. After talking to some of his student employees, Gardella thinks the number of students choosing to come to town will be lower than normal.

But whatever the number of students who ultimately return to State College this semester, they will be welcomed with open arms by most downtown businesses.

“We are excited about the students returning,” says Roz Rossman, co-owner of Viva Bella Salon at 101 South Fraser Street. While students account for only about 20 percent of the salon’s business, she says, “I think our town especially needs them, and overall we’re seeing a huge decline without them. Even though our business can do OK without them, we do better with them.”

One local business that relies heavily on the student population is McLanahan’s. At both of its locations (the Downtown Market on South Allen Street and McLanahan’s Penn State Room on East College Avenue), the store carries groceries and other necessities, making it an “essential” business that did not have to close during Pennsylvania’s coronavirus shutdown this spring.

However, without students in town, business dropped by 80 percent, according to co-owner Ron Agostinelli.

“We need the students. People are not going to get in their cars and drive in from outside of downtown to pick up a tube of toothpaste,” he says. “Every summer is hard for us, and summer started earlier this year.”

Two economic challenges

Having the students back in town will certainly help downtown businesses, but this fall holds two more challenges that could prove to be economically devastating: the loss of Penn State football following the Big 10 Conference’s postponement of the 2020-21 fall sports season, and the Pennsylvania mandate that, among other restrictions, limits occupancy of bars and restaurants to 25 percent indoors.

McLanahan’s is dealing with both of those issues. A large portion of its business is devoted to the Penn State Room, which stocks a wide variety of fan gear and draws a huge crowd on football weekends.

“Every football weekend is like a Black Friday for us,” Agostinelli says.

The Allen Street location of McLanahan’s also features A’s Pub, a self-service tap room. Under the current 25-percent occupancy restrictions, Agostinelli decided it was not worth the trouble to keep the taps open.

In some ways, McLanahan’s is a microcosm of the rest of downtown, and, assuming the season does not take place in the spring, skipping an entire football season for the first time since 1886 has the potential to be disastrous to the entire district.

According to Rob Schmidt, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, downtown retailers normally do 70 to 80 percent of their business during the fall semester, and downtown businesses’ revenues are down anywhere from 50 to 100 percent since March.

“College towns like ours rely on visitors when it comes to the downtown economy,” he says. “We’ve already missed out on 40 new student orientation days, we’ve missed conferences, we’ve missed graduation, we’ve missed Arts Festival, we’re missing Parents Weekend. … There’s a lot of challenges with that.”

Brian Cohen, owner of Harpers at 224 East College Avenue, is concerned about this, as well.

The fine apparel shop is “not a student store,” Cohen says, with students bringing in only 10 percent of its sales, “but not having their parents, who tend to become great customers for three or four years – that’s going to have an impact. Football weekends are huge, but Parents Weekend is every bit as big as a good football weekend for us.”

J.R. Mangan, owner of Café 210 West on College Avenue, hopes the town will still attract out-of-town visitors when school is in session.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people still come to town in the fall for reunions and whatnot, but I really don’t know what to expect,” Mangan says. “Football season really is what gets you through December, January, and February. That’s when you earn all the money you need to get through the end of the year.”

Still, he says, trying to make money under Pennsylvania’s coronavirus mitigation occupancy restrictions may be almost as difficult as a season without football, although for now, the restaurant’s two outdoor dining areas allow the business to accommodate enough guests to make it worthwhile.

“We’ve actually had a pretty consistent summer. We’re hanging in there,” Mangan says. “The outside seating definitely helps a lot. Once it gets cold and we have to move inside at 25 percent capacity, it’s going to be extremely difficult.”

D.P. Dough does not have outdoor dining to fall back on, but it does have a robust take-out and delivery service that should help it survive the dry spell, Gardella says.

Still, he says, “Fifty percent of my business from the last few years was in-store dining, and I can’t stress enough how much football brings to the table. Those football weekends, it was just pretty much managed chaos, it was that busy. I’ll never catch any of those sales this year due to the restrictions that are in place.” 

Safety concerns

Although downtown business owners are understandably concerned about the economic hardships they now face, they remain cognizant of the reason behind mandates and the postponement of fall sports: trying to keep people safe from the spread of a deadly virus.

“Nobody wants to get sick. Nobody wants to hurt anyone,” says Agostinelli. “But you have to make money. You have to stay in business.”

That is the Catch-22 of the arrival of more than 40,000 students from across the country. As much as the community relies upon their presence for its economic well-being, many local residents are concerned about the increased health risks posed by their return.

This summer, more than 1,000 Penn State professors signed an open letter opposing the return to in-person classes; graduate assistants staged a “die-in” on Old Main lawn to protest the university’s re-opening plan; and local residents took to social media to voice their concerns after the cancelled Arts Festival weekend drew hundreds of students into town who were observed attending crowded apartment parties and lining up outside of popular downtown bars, while seemingly ignoring social distancing and masking guidelines.

The outcry led to the State College Borough Council’s passage of an ordinance designed to keep risky student behavior in check by requiring downtown businesses to enforce mask-wearing, limiting gatherings at residential properties to 10 people, and restricting lines outside of businesses to no more than 10 people spaced 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

Downtown businesses are all strictly following masking guidelines, Schmidt says, while bars and restaurants like Café 210 West are turning to apps and reservation systems to adhere to the line ordinance. He hopes these additional safety precautions will help residents feel more comfortable visiting downtown this fall.

“Our businesses really have done an excellent job in making downtown safe,” he says. “Keeping the community safe is a high priority for us, because if campus were to have to close up again at any time during the school year, we will have a significant loss of businesses. You would see storefronts being shuttered.”

Back at Viva Bella, Rossman and her partner, Chrissy Monaco, are optimistic that the students’ return will go smoothly.

“We have to get back to life, and the longer we procrastinate on bringing them back, the longer we push back the inevitable,” Rossman says. “I do think the cases are going to go up when they come back, just because there are 40,000 extra people here. But I think the goal is to keep people out of the hospitals and keep the death rate down, and we’ve done a great job of that so far in this town.”

Monaco adds, “I look at this as an opportunity for students to be responsible and make good choices. With everyone kind of betting against college students, it’s an opportunity to get it right, and then people can look to us and say, ‘Wow, how’d they do that?’ To kind of be the New Zealand of the university world.”

Local support is crucial

While Monaco’s positivity is refreshing, it is hard to find much optimism amongst most of the downtown businesses that have struggled to stay open since March, with no reprieve from the challenges in sight. Loans, rent forgiveness, and cuts to overhead are not enough to keep businesses afloat without customers.

“How do we make it through this? People have to make a commitment to do things locally,” says Cohen. “I’m confident Harpers is going to survive. We just need people that live in our community to say, ‘We need to go out. We need to do more.’”

“That’s really what it comes down to. We need locals to step up and support our downtown and all our local businesses. It’s that simple,” says Schmidt.

“At the end of the day, the economic engine that drives downtown will not be at full capacity until the pandemic is over, we have a vaccine, we have 108,000 fans in our stadium, and we have a campus where people can freely go without problem. Until that time, our objective for downtown is to make it as safe as possible and to try to help our businesses make it through.”

 

Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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