AMHERST, Mass .– For over a century, the AJ Hastings office supply store has opened to the public every day without fail, a community staple in a quintessential college town.

This streak lasted throughout the 1918 flu and world wars, national holidays and even a movement. “Through thick and thin,” said Sharon Povinelli, who co-owns the store with his 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 have been here,” Povinelli said.

The third-generation-owned company never broke its opening streak – until the Coronavirus pandemic hit. AJ Hastings, along with millions of other businesses across the country, closed in March to curb the spread of COVID-19, while colleges closed their campuses and turned to distance learning.

AJ Hastings co-owners Mary Proll and Sharon Povinelli outside their office supply store in Amherst, Massachusetts.Courtesy of Sharon Povinelli

Since closing its doors to customers, the store has moved to curbside pickup and internet selling as the physical location undergoes renovations to meet social distancing guidelines.

The financial pressure from COVID-19 has been particularly acute for college towns like Amherst, where the loss of students has resulted in the loss of money they poured into local economies. Undergraduates – about 25,000 at the three schools combined – made up nearly three-quarters of Amherst’s total population. This population largely left Amherst when the campuses closed.

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

With COVID-19, college towns have suffered significant losses in income, jobs and people.

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

Now, as the campuses are unveil their plans to reopen to keep only 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 will provide strictly online courses and 27 percent will offer a hybrid model for fall, according to the Chronicle of higher education, which follows plans to reopen colleges. Experts say most of the teachings will be distant as classrooms will reduce occupancy to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The 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 in restaurants, and, if they are of legal age, drink in bars. Sporting events and social gatherings draw huge crowds and increase the income of the local economy.

While college towns predict periods of decline during the winter and summer when many students are absent from campus, these slowdowns have always been seen as an exception – no one could have predicted a spring semester ended prematurely or an autumn without students.

Many universities have lost income they initially relied on through graduation, alumni and sporting events, Gavazzi said. “Now he is extremely optimistic that universities will offer in-person education for a long time. I am convinced that students will struggle to follow health protocols and we will have to go back to online learning, ”he said.

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

In Ithaca, located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, just about everyone has a connection to the city’s campuses, Cornell University, and Ithaca College. Mayor Svante Myrick has said he is ready to cut the city’s $ 70 million budget by $ 14 million and has already laid off a quarter of the employees. Last month, the city adopted a resolution ask the state to allow Myrick to cancel the rent for three months.

University of Michigan students contribute nearly $ 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 with multiple operations in Ann Arbor, said he had put nearly a third of his 700-450 staff on leave, and estimated that sales were 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

“There are a lot of companies doing a lot worse,” Weizweig said.

The Logan restaurant, a must-see in Ann Arbor, closed after 16 years. Aut Bar, an LGBTQ mainstay, is closing after 25 years. And after 60 years in business, Treasure Mart, a popular antique store, is definitively close its doors.

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

In Amherst, where the flagship University of Massachusetts campus offers nearly all distance learning courses, Gould said she expects 30% of businesses to close within the next year. AJ Hastings saw an 80% drop in sales between March and June, compared to the same period last year. Amherst Books, a locally owned independent bookstore, achieves nearly 60% of its annual sales in September – a figure it doesn’t expect to approach this fall.

Because there’s no way to get an accurate enrollment of returning students, it’s unclear how universities and college towns will make up for their losses this fall. But for schools, cities and businesses, one thing remains clear: None of them expect to fully recover anytime soon.

The census is another source of concern. Each decade, the national membership determines the number of seats each state sends to the United States House of Representatives, and the amount of federal funding is divided between local and state governments. College towns have reported significant undercoverage as students leaving campus early coincide with the response window for this year’s U.S. Census.

In Athens, Ohio, Ohio University students 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 university town, half the population is students, meaning the number of residents minus students could drop from 31,000 to just 15,500.

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

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

“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 understands the rise in coronavirus cases across the country is a growing concern, but any attempt to strengthen the local economy is a “silver lining.”

Gould expressed similar sentiments, saying that ultimately, given that a COVID-19 vaccine remains too far to see, small businesses and college towns need more help from the federal government. In April, some companies succeeded in obtaining a Paycheque Protection Program Loan – an emergency fund for small businesses with less than 500 employees – but for many, that money has already dried up.

In early May, Gould established a micro-grant nonprofit, the Amherst Town Center Foundation, to help cover the financial losses that small businesses have suffered as a result of the pandemic. Since its inception, the nonprofit has raised over $ 300,000 to distribute to over 60 small businesses, including spending on PPE and outdoor catering infrastructure.

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

“Fortunately, no business has closed permanently, but with a lot less returning students, I don’t know how long we will be able to survive,” she said.

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