How much will Five Colleges’ return buoy businesses?

  • Charlotte Pan and Will Sancloemente, both seniors at UMass who arrived recently in Amherst to start the school year, stand in front of The Black Sheep hoping to order food Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Khian Le, the assistant manager at Share Roasters in Amherst, talks Tuesday about business and students returning to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steven Aoki, the assistant manager at Antonio’s in Amherst, talks Tuesday about business and the students returning to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Matt Haskins, the owner of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, stopped in for a slice Tuesday at Antonio’s and talked about business and the college students returning to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steven Aoki, assistant manager at Antonio’s in Amherst, talks Tuesday about business and college students returning to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Catherine Curtin, left, and Caroline Clark, both seniors at UMass who have recently returned, sit in the outdoor portion of Share Roasters on Tuesday. In the background is Khian Le, the assistant manager, who talked about business and the college students returning to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Khian Le, assistant manager at Share Roasters in Amherst, talks Tuesday about business and the college students returning to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 8/23/2020 7:00:29 PM

As the fall semester nears, thousands of college students who live off campus are arriving in the region, a boon for the bottom line of restaurants, cafes, shops and entertainment venues.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to disrupt normal life, the return of students, and a possible increase in cases, is being seen through a different prism by the business community.

“My coworkers are nervous about it, but from the business side we absolutely need it,” Khian Le, assistant manager at Share Roasters on North Pleasant Street in downtown Amherst, said of the anticipated swelling of the residential population.

The seasonal boost in potential customers, both from students living on and off campus, will be smaller this year, with the University of Massachusetts severely limiting its on-campus population and advising students to study from home, while both Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges have switched to entirely virtual instruction. Amherst and Hampshire colleges, meanwhile, have created bubble-like campuses for learning.

Since the resumption of in-person and takeout dining over the summer, Le said the financial numbers for Share are not hitting the mark needed to sustain the business.

“Usually we’re expecting things to really be picking up now,” Le said. “Some weeks it feels like it’s getting back to normal; other weeks not so much.”

Still, Le said there is hope, though also many unknowns because of the fear for employees and customers of the spread of infection.

In normal times, based on the most recent report put together two years ago by the UMass Donahue Institute, spending by the university, its employees and students helped to support an additional 10,939 jobs across the state.

“These students directly spent a significant amount of money off-campus in the economy, which, in turn, generated additional economic activity,” the report states.

How much this economic boost will shrink this fall is unclear, though students who have returned to the area say they are being cautious about venturing out due to health concerns.

UMass senior Catherine Curtin, who was dining on Share’s outdoor patio in Amherst with her cross country teammate Caroline Clark on a recent morning, said she is going only to restaurants that have outdoor dining as part of her efforts to stay healthy. While Curtin has to work and study in an on-campus lab, she doesn’t worry about that as the only person inside it.

Outside Black Sheep Deli on Main Street, two other UMass students living in town, Will Sancloemente and Charlotte Pan, were looking for a place to get a bite to eat. Both said they were required to commit to leases signed more than a year ago, and will be trying to stay mostly with clusters of friends with whom they already live and socialize to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Restaurants are offering protections for their employees and customers. At Antonio’s, a mainstay of the Amherst dining scene, only six customers can be inside at a time.

Steven Aoki, assistant manager at Antonio’s, said many juniors and seniors at UMass already signed leases for housing this school year, and he expects many to patronize the establishment.

“It will be interesting, but there are a lot of unknowns,” Aoki said.”The big concern is how kids will behave once they are settled in.”

Antonio’s has remained open throughout the summer, in part by launching a delivery service for the first time since opening in 1991. This allowed the restaurant to keep employees working who might otherwise have been laid off.

“It’s been OK — we’re established so we don’t have to worry as much,” Aoki said.

Also beginning a delivery and pickup service is the Black Sheep Deli.

“Black Sheep has decided to reinvent as not only a deli and bakery, but as a market,” said owner Nick Seamon.

After being closed from mid-March until early this month, Seamon said the key decision on reopening was to find a way to safely make groceries, including produce, meats and cheeses, and sandwiches and pastries available, through online or phone ordering. Only employees are allowed into the restaurant.

“We’re trying to put a positive spin on this, knowing that all the students who live off campus will not be part of the meal plan,” Seamon said. Under the UMass reopening plan, students not living on campus and taking all of their classes online are not allowed on campus.

With the health of the community paramount, Seamon said he would like to see UMass make payments in lieu of taxes of $2.5 million or more as a way to help the town deal with protecting health and public safety.

Grabbing a pizza slice at Antonio’s, Matt Haskins, who owns Matt’s Barber Shop on Boltwood Walk, said he is only doing about 40% of normal business. He had hoped the university would try to have all students return to the community, whether living on or off campus.

“I’m bummed they weren’t all coming back,” Haskins said.

In Northampton, the decision by Smith College to have all students take classes remotely and not be on campus means that most of the 2,400 undergraduates will not be in the city for the semester.

Fall is usually a busy time of year for Pizza Amore, Harun Iyigel, an owner of the shop, said on a recent afternoon. Roughly half of the business at the pizza shop, at the edge of the Smith College campus on Green Street, is tied to the college, whether it’s from students or faculty. But now business is slow, Iyigel said. And bills are “piling up.”

“I absolutely do think not having students is going to affect our business,” said Joe Deng, owner of LimeRed Teahouse, with outlets in Northampton and Amherst.

But the Northampton shop will be less impacted by the lack of students than the Amherst site would be, Deng said. “The idea here is that I don’t think students not being here is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Deng said the diminished student population, along with factors including keeping up with COVID-19 rules, and concerns that business will drop off in the winter when people hunker down, gives him a “pessimistic” outlook. His businesses received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which Deng said has been helpful.

In speaking about a grant to create more outdoor space downtown, in part for dining, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz referenced the expected dearth of college students as a reason to attract more people to Main Street and the areas around it.

“With the recent news that many of our local colleges and universities are opting for remote learning, it’s time for bold moves to ensure that Northampton is a safe and exciting destination for local recreation and commerce,” he said in a statement.

Located just across the street from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, The Village Commons collection of multi-use buildings naturally attracts neighboring students and academic staff to its retail shops, entertainment venues and restaurants.

“While on some levels our location and variety of different uses increases our resiliency during these challenging times, we are certainly not insulated against the loss of Five College foot traffic,” said Jeff Labrecque, chief operating officer of The Village Commons.

With just a few thousand students returning to the Five Colleges in the fall, “the impact, while greater in the Northampton, Hadley and Amherst areas, will bring unprecedented challenges for our small businesses to weather during the first semester,” he said.

Thirsty Mind Coffee and Wine Bar and the Odyssey Bookshop typically attract a particularly large percentage of students as customers and will likely feel the biggest economic loss due to the colleges being restricted, according to Labrecque. In April, the Odyssey launched a fundraiser that exceeded $63,000 to help the shop recoup losses stemming from the pandemic. Main Moon restaurant, Tower Theaters, Duro West African Cuisine and Moxy Boutique also bring in a good number of students, Labrecque said.

While Mount Holyoke students, faculty and staff do make significant contributions to the businesses, the local, year-round community likely generates most customer traffic, according to Labrecque.

Jillian LaBonte, a supervisor at Iya Sushi in The Village Commons, noted a similar pattern in the restaurant’s clientele.

“We have a really nice community following here, so the students do affect us, but we also have our local community coming in here,” LaBonte said, adding that Iya’s Amherst location is more student-driven than its South Hadley counterpart. But business has picked up some since administrative staff returned to Mount Holyoke and a limited number of students started to come back, she said.

Like the Amherst businesses that would like to see an influx of customers but also understand the need to keep communities safe, LaBonte said she had mixed emotions about Mount Holyoke closing the campus to most students this fall, but was glad to see administrators prioritize public health.

“In a way I was personally relieved to not have so many many people coming in from different areas,” LaBonte said, “but I think we rely more on our community than we do on students here for our business.”

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