College Town Economies Suffer as Students Avoid Bars, Football Tailgating

College students came back to Blacksburg, Va., last month, but so far many remain reluctant to fill the restaurants, shops and other local businesses that have helped insulate this southwestern Virginia town from past downturns.

Source: WSJ | Published on September 21, 2020

Group of students wearing reusable face masks while walking together on campus.

It is a bad sign for Blacksburg and other college towns that rely heavily on spending by students, alumni and their families. The coronavirus pandemic, which emptied out Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University along with hundreds of other U.S. colleges in March, still weighs on these local economies.

The students’ return, seen as crucial to the region’s recovery in the spring, so far hasn’t had the impact many expected. Virginia Tech football, with home games that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to Blacksburg each year, is back, but attendance is limited and tailgating prohibited. Officials postponed the team’s Sept. 19 home opener against in-state rival University of Virginia following a rise in coronavirus cases.

“We had a plan to get through the summer and hoped the return of students would give us a bump to push us through until some sort of solution to the virus is found,” said Mike Soriano, owner of four Blacksburg eateries, including Champs Downtown Sports Bar & Cafe. “Unfortunately, we have not seen a bump.” Earlier this year, many businesses believed that solution would have emerged by the fall, Mr. Soriano said.

Virginia Tech brings about $1.2 billion in annual income to Blacksburg, or more than half of the town’s economy, according to Anna Brown, a researcher at Emsi, a provider of labor-market analytics. One of every two jobs is supported by the university, its students and visitors, Emsi said.

As of July, the university had 9,300 employees, including full-time and part-time faculty, staff and wage workers.

Virginia Tech brought back some 30,000 undergraduates this fall, including 7,769 freshman and transfers, according to preliminary numbers provided by a university spokesman. Enrollment is up somewhat from a year ago. Most classes this fall are online, and both university and town officials have capped the number of people who can gather in groups. Virginia Tech spread out students’ move-in dates over nine days, and limited the number of guests who could help them settle in.

Students’ presence still matters, even if they aren’t flocking to downtown Blacksburg as they have in previous years, said James Cabler, director of business engagement for Onward NRV, a regional economic-development group. They shop at grocery stores, rent apartments and pay sales tax, he said. And some of them will stay in Blacksburg once they graduate, working for a cluster of companies in high-growth industries expected to become a bigger part of the local economy.

The students’ arrival, which transforms an otherwise rural county with less than 100,000 residents, has also led to a jump in coronavirus cases. The seven-day average of new daily cases in Montgomery County, home to Blacksburg, rose to 64 on Sept. 17 from eight on Aug. 24, when Virginia Tech’s fall semester began, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Classes at Radford University, located 15 miles southwest of Blacksburg, started Aug. 12.

Adiah Gholston, a Virginia Tech senior who lives with her family in nearby Christiansburg, had waited until early September to venture out to eat. As she and a friend dined at an outdoor picnic table in Blacksburg, they felt surrounded by large groups of students. Some had masks, some didn’t.

“We had to leave early,” Ms. Gholston said. “We felt uncomfortable.”

The campus has become quieter in recent weeks, after the return-to-school rush subsided, she said. She sees fewer big groups, and believes most students are being careful. But Ms. Gholston said she hasn’t gone out to eat since, and isn’t sure when she will.

“I guess when cases go down nationally,” she said. “I don’t know when that’s going to be. I love movies, but I wouldn’t do that right now. I’m waiting for things to get better.”

Area hotel rooms remain vacant, and restaurants stay closed days at a time. Some businesses that went into hibernation earlier this year have remained closed, waiting for more signs of life.

Tom Norman, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott in Blacksburg, said his and other hotels lost most of their bookings after the virus began to erase many of the reasons that bring visitors to Blacksburg, beginning with the U.S. swimming events that were scheduled on March 12-13. “It was pretty bleak,” Mr. Norman said.

Local businesses lost graduation weekend in May, then the flurry of summer traffic that normally comes with new-student orientation programs that were held online this year. And then came the decision on Virginia Tech football. The university said it would follow a full conference schedule this season.

Some nonconference games, including its Sept. 12 matchup against powerhouse Pennsylvania State University, were canceled. “That one was the most painful,” said Mr. Norman. “In all honesty, we could’ve put any rate (on hotel rooms) and it would’ve sold out,” he said. Instead, only 23% of the hotel’s 96 rooms were filled that weekend.

But some restaurants, including two of Mr. Soriano’s, have had a smoother transition to these new realities. Zeppoli’s, an Italian eatery and wine shop, has ramped up its takeout options and social-media presence to help offset the losses.

“I’ll see businesses complain, ‘we won’t have busy weekends,’ ” said Cody Thompson, Zeppoli’s co-owner. “But you have to realize it’s not happening, and start adapting.”

A 2015 study by Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development found football generated nearly $70 million in spending and 289 jobs that fiscal year. “If anything, that’s grown,” said Sarah Lyon-Hill, who led the study. “You have thousands of people coming to this very rural area and spending money, and lots of it.”

That economic impact ripples through communities such as Roanoke, 40 miles away, and helps shape the local real-estate market, Ms. Lyon-Hill said. Researchers found that some 2,000 Blacksburg-area houses and apartments were used as second homes for Virginia Tech fans and alumni. “They’re called Hokie Homes,” she said.

Those home games help area businesses withstand the leaner months and were an important source of tax revenue, said Marc Verniel, Blacksburg’s town manager.

Earlier this year, before Virginia Tech settled on a plan for the fall semester, even more seemed at risk. The state lockdowns that sent students home in March also threatened to disrupt an array of businesses closely linked to the university’s research and brain power.

MELD Manufacturing Corp., a 3-D metal-printing company, and Aeroprobe Corp., which makes instruments for aircraft companies and other manufacturers, temporarily lost access to the Virginia Tech labs and other research facilities, said Nanci Hardwick, the companies’ chief executive. They were able to get back to work, and both MELD and Aeroprobe are now as busy as ever, she said.

Many companies in faster-growing industries have since recovered, or never lost momentum in the first place, offering employees opportunities to work from home and adjusting their facilities for those who must be there.

Torc Robotics, a Blacksburg self-driving vehicle company that sold a majority stake of itself to Daimler AG last year, recently unveiled plans to expand. The company, founded by Virginia Tech alumnus Michael Fleming, intends to hire an additional 350 staff.

Mr. Fleming said he is hopeful this crisis will serve as a wake-up call to Blacksburg, underlining the need to grow less dependent on Virginia Tech. “Virginia Tech is the best and worst thing for this area,” he said. “This region must diversify. A resilient economy should be based on more than a college football schedule.”