From WSU to Western, college town businesses are feeling the squeeze

By Emily McCarty / Crosscut.com

The extra bedrooms in Tony Poston’s house are named after old Washington State University friends who come to visit him in Pullman on fall weekends for football games. The WSU alumni would make a full weekend out of it, doing rounds around town, hitting up the RV lots with all the tailgaters and getting beers at The Coug. Poston would make sure to swing by his WSU-branded merchandise store on campus to say hi to more alumni.

Now, Martin Stadium, with a capacity of almost 33,000, sits empty and silent. No RVs line the streets or fill the parking lots. Poston’s physical store, while still selling online, is permanently closed. The Coug has plastic sheeting up inside to separate the customers.

For Pullman, Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order was only half the shutdown. The same is true for many of the small college towns whose identities are found as much in downtown districts as in mascots and school colors. With WSU classes going online, on-campus housing severely restricted at 15% capacity and all football games canceled, the face of Pullman has completely changed.

Poston, owner of College Hill Custom Threads, named after a student neighborhood, said it’s not only his business and the city that have changed; the fallout from COVID-19 has impacted his personal life, as well. Closing his physical store on campus and going online means he and his clientele are missing out on the college experience that made him fall in love with WSU, Poston said.

“Those experiences are what made me who I am. The networking. The people I met. I would never have met my wife if it wasn’t for Cougar football Saturday,” Poston said.

Marie Dymkoski, executive director of the Pullman Chamber and Visitor Center, estimates that 60% to 70% of WSU students have returned to Pullman to live this fall. Although they come from all over, they consider WSU and Pullman their home, she said.

Some businesses are closing their doors. One bar and grill, The Lumberyard, shuttered when the stay-at-home order required nonessential businesses to close, Dymkoski said. But after the owner found out in March that classes would remain online, he put the bar and grill up for sale, she said. Another business owner closed her coffee shop and a coffee drive-thru that largely depended on students, Dymkoski said, although the owner still has two other coffee drive-thrus that survived.

“I also think it’s permanently changing the face of all communities and how we interact with each other and what the region’s businesses are going to look like going forward,” Dymkoski said. “[But] I’m an optimist, and so I really believe that we’re going to get through this whole. And when I say we, I mean, the Palouse, Pullman, Moscow [Idaho], the small communities around here, because we do care so much.”

And Dymkoski said it’s important that businesses change their models to meet the community’s current needs. The community has been anxious about the spread of COVID-19, as students returned from summer from homes across the country.

Between Aug. 20 and Sept. 2, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Whitman County went from 138 to 618, with the majority involving people under 39. Local police issued several infractions on party gatherings, which public health officials believe have contributed to the spread. The school responded by sending a mobile testing unit to Greek row and made on-campus testing available after Labor Day. The National Guard was even sent in to help with testing.

As of Sept. 10, The New York Times ranked Pullman as the fifth worst metro area in the nation for greatest number of new cases relative to population in the past two weeks — 5.0 per 1,000 residents.

Pullman has long been considered a “one company town,” Dymkoski said, with WSU driving the economy forward. Businesses don’t cater only to students and staff. They also focus heavily on the influx of traffic that WSU brings to town for sporting events.

With the football season canceled, Poston’s custom apparel company has taken a huge hit. He makes custom apparel for about 400 other campuses, as well as for corporate clientele, but WSU makes up 20% of all his collegiate business.

Football weekends make more revenue than the rest of the month.  Poston said his numbers will be down over $1 million in 2020 versus last year, and he estimates losing $300,000 more from football, graduation and parents weekends alone. That’s down 30% this year, but it’s vastly improved from the 60% to 70% he was down when the COVID-19 shutdowns first started.

“I know every community is hurting. It’s just a little bit different here in Pullman, just because we depend on these weekends and we depend on visitors and we depend on students that, you know, half of them are gone, too, so our population dropped quicker,” Poston said. “It’s just nice to see people care and spread the word about it.”

Central Washington University went fully online in March as well but, unlike WSU, it will offer both online and in-person instruction this fall, with 6-foot distancing and face coverings in classrooms. On-campus housing will also be available, although the school, to maintain distancing, will use only 2,100 of the roughly 4,000 beds.

In a normal year, Central students, faculty, and staff make up about three-quarters of Ellensburg’s 21,000 population, so in-person classes should revive a significant amount of the city’s economy.

So far, Ellensburg has seen only a 6% dip in sales tax revenue this year, said Margaret Reich, communications officer with the city of Ellensburg, but she expects that number will be in the double digits by the end of year.

One factor keeping Kittitas County afloat is business from out-of-towners coming to get their hair done or go to restaurants and bars, Reich said, because Kittitas County has been in Phase 3 of the governor’s gradual reopening plan since June 23.

Those travelers have benefited the Red Pickle, a popular Ellensburg restaurant that serves mostly burgers with a “Latin flair,” according to its owner, Mario Alfaro.

The Red Pickle started in 2016 as a food truck in Ellensburg. By 2018, Alfaro was doing well enough to transition to a brick-and- mortar restaurant, and his passion for food goes beyond cooking. For him, sharing food is an expression of love, Alfaro said. He is Guatemalan and that identity is mirrored in his food, with burgers named after gauchos — South American horsemen — and others made with Guatemalan spices.

Over half his clientele are Ellensburg locals, about one-quarter are students, and the rest are people traveling through town. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, The Red Pickle saw small growth every year and was optimistic about the future.

Alfaro said he is fortunate his restaurant’s popularity has continued into the pandemic, so much so that he’s had to hire new kitchen staff and servers to cover the orders he receives. Alfaro said he depends heavily on Central students for employees. He has never had a problem with hiring, and this year remains the same, he said.

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Although Alfaro did close for a week after the stay-home order to do a deep cleaning, and said the business took a huge hit the first two to three weeks after, it has since been busy. And while only a quarter of his clientele are students, that means a lot right now to a small business like The Red Pickle. It has gotten creative, like selling cocktails to go and building a small patio. Alfaro is looking on the bright side, thankful for the support he’s received in the town.

“It’s a time for us to think out of the box and make something great so we can make these people come to a place … to create something unique and different,” Alfaro said. “I think this is a great opportunity for us to gain more guests.”

But Alfaro’s success may not be a good indicator of the future for other college town restaurants.

Before COVID-19, about one in 10 jobs in Washington state was hospitality-based, comprising about 300,000 people, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.

The association predicts dark times ahead for the restaurant industry.

“We’re budgeting for our own company that 35% of full-service restaurants will go out of business in the upcoming year,” Anton said.

“I really hope that’s wrong. I really hope there’s another round of PPP,” he added, referencing the federal Paycheck Protection Program that provided small-business loans  early in the pandemic.

Anton says the change in college towns because of the coronavirus is not just an economic problem.

“What I don’t really know is how that changes socialization … going to The Coug and sitting there and having a beer and those memories and friends, that gets replaced by getting a Coug burger and an IPA delivered to your home,” Anton said. “What does that look like from the college experience? I don’t have an answer. It’s gonna be very interesting to watch.”

The Coug is a staple in Pullman. The old brick building opened in 1932 and started serving beers in 1975. The current owner, 43-year-old Bob Cady, took over in 2004. He is a Coug himself, and also owns a hot dog stand and another neighborhood restaurant and bar, The Land, which he just purchased in October.

His clientele varied during pre-COVID times: During the day, Cady saw alumni coming to campus for events or business trips. Later, he’d see professors and grad students. But as the sun set, it was all the young WSU undergraduate crowd, he said, and those made up most of his clientele.

Before the pandemic, Cady said The Coug was seeing its best years financially. He had enough cash reserves to feel comfortable starting outdoor renovations. Then, the stay-home order came. Cady said those cash reserves, getting funds from the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan have kept him afloat.

Cady also had to close for almost a month after spring break, when WSU transitioned to all online classes and students didn’t return to campus. Doing carry-out for a place that normally sells beer and bar food didn’t make sense, Cady said, when the population in the college-age neighborhood “goes from 4,500 people to 250 people.”

The weeks after spring break are precious for bar revenue, Cady said. He makes 25% of his annual revenue from just the six weeks after spring break. Fall football weekends make up a large portion as well: One football weekend can bring in about $70,000. Currently,  Cady is down 74% in sales revenue comparing this August with the same month last year.

But he worries about transmission of the virus more than the lack of business. He has a very small and close-knit staff, Cady said, and if enough staff contract the virus, he has to shut down. Recently, two of his college staff members were exposed by roommates and tested positive. Three other staff who had prolonged contact with those two are in a 14-day quarantine. Almost all of them live on Greek Row, where The Coug is situated.

Cady is taking preventive measures, more so than most business owners. There are mandatory masks, temperature checks and a customer log. When someone comes in for a beer or a snack, they sign their name and leave a phone number for possible contact tracing, which has come in handy with previous cases, Cady said.

In Bellingham, where Western Washington University students make up 17% of the city’s 90,000 population, business owner and city council member Hollie Huthman is also concerned about students transmitting the virus more than her company’s bottom line.

Huthman opened a live music venue in 2011 called The Shakedown. It then expanded next door to open The Racket, a bar with food and an upstairs pinball lounge.

After the shutdown requirements eased in Whatcom County, the operation reopened in July for partial food service outdoors and delivery — “at least to get something going,” Huthman said, “but we’re still at about 20% of normal sales.”

While customer demographics vary — everyone from those who have had their 21st birthday to a group of knitters in their 80s, Huthman said — both businesses greatly benefit from college traffic. While Western did stop in-person classes for spring, it will have some in-person classes this fall, with estimates of about 1,800 students attending class on campus per day, complete with mandatory COVID-19 testing, masks and symptom checks.

But Huthman reiterates Cady’s words: It’s not the online classes and lack of students that scare her, but the potential for student transmission of the virus. She said one restaurant already had to close due to a positive COVID-19 staff test.

Bellingham, like Pullman, is also seeing problems with younger crowds transmitting and contracting the virus. In the past two weeks counting back from Sept. 8, people 20 to 39 made up 43% of new COVID-19 cases in the county.

But Huthman has another potential option for assistance. The Shakedown, an independent music venue, is part of 2,500 other indie venues involved with NIVA — the National Independent Venue Association — that are working with Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, bipartisan legislation to provide relief to indie venues, promoters and festivals. NIVA estimated that if the shutdown lasts six months or longer without federal assistance, 90% of its members would close permanently. And Huthman said that would be a great cultural detriment to the community.

“That’s why I got into this business. It was such an important part of my life, and it’s so important to so many communities,” Huthman said. “For a while I could call going to a show ‘going to church,’ because you have those emotions and it’s really exciting. You have all of these people around you that are feeling the same things and you’re sharing this experience. … I think it would be a shame to lose that.”


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