With no students, small college town worries over future
What happens to a university city when the students disappear? Ithaca, a small town in the state of New York near gorges and vineyards, finds out.
Most of the 24,000 students at Cornell University and another 6,200 at Ithaca College disappeared in March when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, leaving restaurants and shops. The locals, who are still affected by the outbreak and the resulting exodus, wonder when - or if - things will normalize again.
"It's going to be hard. I mean, we usually have about seven months of college time here," said Gregar Brous, who runs the local Collegetown Bagels shops, other restaurants, and a caterer. He has a little more than 100 of the 330 employees he laid off brought back, but the long-term fate of university-dependent companies remains murky.
"One of the biggest challenges right now is so many unknowns," said Brous.
Ithaca College plans to bring students back this fall, but weeks later than normal on October 5th. Cornell - the Ivy League school that dominates this city of 31,000 - is offering its summer courses online and is expected to publish its plans for the fall semester soon.
Even if Cornell decides to go back to class, as the locals expect, they are concerned about the return of students who spend more time on campus, or about an autumn flood in COVID-19 cases that add another trigger sudden exit. The Mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick, said possible international travel restrictions could affect Cornell, where almost a quarter of students come from other countries.
"If people don't feel comfortable sending their children back to our locations across the country or around the world, we will start cutting jobs," said Myrick.
Cornell students spend an estimated $ 225 million annually to promote a healthy retail economy, highlighted by blocks of funky shops and restaurants on the Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian zone downhill from the sprawling Cornell campus.
"If you were a line cook or a waiter in Ithaca before the pandemic, it was so easy to find a job. You couldn't avoid it, they were everywhere," said Matt Stupak, a sacked line cook who is now a part-time job with partial unemployment Has.
David Foote was fired from his work at Ithaca's Planned Parenthood the same day when his wife found that her hours at a nonprofit organization were being shortened. The couple had savings and deferred expenses. But even if his wife has been working full-time again lately, he is still looking for work and waiting for unemployment benefits.
"At this point, things look a bit stretched, so I hope things start to form," he said, "but also to recognize that there are still many dangers when there are many people in the same place or not take the right precautions. "
Ithaca is still relatively well. The regional unemployment rate rose to 10% in April, but was the lowest in the state's metropolitan areas. With more than 10,000 employees, Cornell is the largest employer in the district and has not yet announced any job cuts. The university has even taken steps to help on the ground, such as $ 100,000 for a fund to support businesses affected by the pandemic.
Nevertheless, hotels, restaurants and shops in the area are recovering from a great success. According to preliminary federal data, the number of leisure and hospitality jobs in the Tompkins County area alone declined by 2,000 between March and May.
Jobs have been cut everywhere in all cities this year, but the impact has been more concentrated in some smaller university towns where companies are heavily dependent on students.
"Our entire economy has gone," said Gabrielle Gould, general manager of the Amherst Business Improvement District.
The picturesque university city of Massachusetts had to deal with the sudden loss of around 35,000 students from UMass Amherst and four other colleges in the region. By May, Amherst had an unemployment rate of 32.6%, which, according to an analysis by the Pioneer Institute, is the second highest in the state.
The 47 restaurants in Amherst's business district were allowed to add outdoor seating this month, though Gould said the fighting would continue.
The economic picture of Ithaca is brightening as pandemic restrictions are slowly easing and local restaurants may recently open at half capacity. Ithaca is also a summer tourist destination where people stop by after drinking Rieslings in local vineyards or exploring local canyons.
Myrick estimates the April business recovery, but said it looks more like a slump than last year. Since residents are still injured, the city council passed a new resolution this month that allows the city to ask for state permission to rent out the rents due between April and June.
Aside from concerns about falling sales tax revenue, Ithaca residents are concerned about long-term trends in higher education. There are budget pandemic problems everywhere in colleges as they anticipate uncertain future prospects. Some students postpone enrollment and long-term business models are accessed again.
Ithaca College has already taken 167 workers on leave. Cornell, with $ 7.3 billion in foundation assets, is expected to weather any storm. But Cornell President Martha Pollack wrote in April that the school's plan to deal with the crisis "will almost certainly involve painful steps such as vacation or layoffs."
"How concerned are Ithaca if the future of higher education changes?" Said Myrick. "I'm worried. I'm very worried."
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