A college town without its students; how local businesses are surviving in Pullman

PULLMAN, Wash. — This week marks the first week of summer break for students at Washington State University, but the campus has been largely empty for months. In-person classes stopped at spring break in mid-March.

Pullman is one of those true college towns, where everything revolves around the university. Losing students and, their parents during weekend events has a serious impact.

The city of Pullman is known far and wide as a beloved college town. This time of year, we’d typically see rambunctious college students celebrating their academic accomplishments.

Instead, it’s a different sight on the Palouse.

“It feels like kind of our summer vibe, without the nice weather, got started in March,” Jill Bielenberg, general manager and co-owner of Birch & Barley.

Pullman business owners are used to a quiet summer, but never a silent spring.

“April is not only Mom’s Weekend, but it’s just a lot of time that a lot of events happen on campus,” Bielenberg said.

“Date dashes, spring formals, hundreds of them around the country. We had roughly 400-500 orders that were going to happen in May,” said Tony Poston, president of College Hill Custom Threads.

Between August and May, more than 20,000 students are on-campus at WSU in Pullman. But without them, that’s 20,000 fewer people to help support local businesses.

“Obviously, WSU is our biggest client. But we work in over 400 campuses. When news came down that these campuses were closing, it was an immediate 50% revenue drop like that,” Poston said.

Even a local theatre is struggling.

“Right now, we would be planning and announcing our 2021 season,” said Michael Todd, associate director of RTOP Theatre.

Now, they’re getting creative. Birch and Barley is focusing all their effort on takeout and College Hill Custom Threads is amping up online sales.

“We’ve been shipping out shirts, hundreds a day. Which is really nice, the Cougar community has really come together and bought a lot of apparel over the recent weeks,” Poston said.

That’s called Cougs helping Cougs. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a college town, where the rich tradition is more than just the students.

“People do make their memories there. They have celebrations and especially for college towns, they are part of the tradition,” Bielenberg said.

For all these businesses in Pullman, as are many others, they’re doing what they can to make do for now – whether that’s online sales or takeout. Summer will come around soon and hopefully they can get students back on the Palouse by this fall.

RELATED: Spokane health board approves request to ask Gov. Inslee to speed up county’s reopening

READ: Gov. Inslee details guidelines for curbside retail services