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State College Leaders Weigh In On Impact Of No Penn State Football This Fall

The Big Ten’s announcement on Tuesday that fall sports — including football — are postponed dealt a substantial blow to Centre County businesses that have already struggled through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conference officials said fall sports could potentially be played in the spring, though no decisions have been made.  

Businesses already faced the prospect that there wouldn’t be the thousands of visitors who normally descend on State College for home football weekends, even if the games were played. But even as Penn State said there would be no fans in the stands under current conditions, athletic department administrators offered the hope that if the state lifted some restrictions, Beaver Stadium could still host as many as 23,000 fans.

On Tuesday, those hopes, slim as they may have been, were dashed, and local government and business leaders reacted with a common word: devastating.

“It’s devastating but not unexpected news,” said Fritz Smith, executive director of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. “I think that people were bracing themselves for this. Some have learned to thrive in this environment and some quite frankly won’t make it.”

Smith estimated that over the past five months the region has seen a loss of $70 million in visitor spending at places like hotels, restaurants, retail shops, and gas stations. Add in indirect impact — such as purchases from suppliers and spending by employees from affected businesses — and it’s likely over $100 million.

The losses are expected to be about the same or more over the coming months with no home football weekends.

“It will leave a void of tens of millions of dollars in visitor spending that won’t happen,” Smith said. “These businesses have already endured five months of very tough times and it means they now have four to five more months of it. I think we can try to mitigate that by conveying a welcoming message to people and marketing to people in the region to come and experience the great assets of Centre County that I think they will be pleased to find and will be on offer at a much more affordable price than it would have been otherwise, particularly if they’d like to stay overnight.”

Smith said another federal stimulus bill that would provide support to individuals and businesses would be a lifeline, and that he hopes legislators recognize the particular pain felt by university towns like State College.

“I think a combination of the governor, when it is safe to do so, lifting some of the restrictions, in combination with hopefully some federal stimulus could make staying alive viable for most of our businesses,” he said. “I think absent some of those moves, some people are not going to make it.”

State College Borough Council President Jesse Barlow also said it was “devastating” for local businesses, but that he didn’t think Penn State and other universities had any other choice.

“There are a lot of local businesses that depend upon football games very much and do a large portion of their business on those. They’re going to suffer. There’s no doubt about it,” Barlow said. “Unfortunately… I think it was the only decision that could be made under the circumstances.”

Barlow urged residents and visitors to continue frequenting local businesses supporting establishments however they can, including by purchasing gift cards for later use.

The borough has been “doing some small loans and things” for businesses but does not have nearly the resources to replace lost revenue from football weekends, Barlow said.

Centre County is preparing to award grants to local businesses from its share of federal relief money provided by the state, but Commissioner Mark Higgins said at Tuesday’s board meeting hundreds, if not more than 1,000, are expected to apply.

“Unfortunately it’s going to be around somewhere near $6 million, which is a fraction of what the local community is taking today just on football,” he said.

Barlow also expects a domino effect, with the declining economy continue to impact the borough’s budget, and he noted the latest proposed relief bill, which has stalled in the U.S. Senate, would provide no help to states and municipalities.

“It’s going to have to be some kind of state and local rescue from the federal level or this will not just be a State College problem, it will be a nationwide problem,” Barlow said.

Curtis Shulman, director of operations for Hotel State College & Co., which includes six restaurants and bars at the corner of College Avenue and Allen Street, said that under the current circumstances it’s a different situation for food and beverage businesses than for retail.

The Wolf administration’s targeted mitigation order limits restaurants to 25% capacity. That means they’re operating at a loss, but at the same time, Shulman said, Hotel State College’s businesses likely couldn’t accommodate more guests anyway with that restriction in place.

“Optimistically, we can look at this that it’s not a huge loss,” he said. “Under normal circumstances obviously it would be devastating. With what’s going on right now and our capacity limitations and the fact that we’re trying to discourage waves of transient population, I think at the end of the day there’s not a lot of opportunity cost that’s missed out from this. I don’t think we could have fit more people in a restaurant and until we can get up to a capacity beyond 25 or 50 percent it’s almost a moot point.

“I think there could be some silver linings here in that it’s going to limit the amount of random transient business coming to town and it’s going to provide a level of comfort with the locals that will encourage them to re-explore downtown sooner than they would if there was a football season.”

But, he said, he worries for retail stores and restaurants that might not have the same resources.

“It’s easy to sit back and assume these businesses are raking in tons of money, but the reality is the margins aren’t big in this industry,” Shulman said. “You go through summers where you lose just to try to regain in the fall with the students. We’ve essentially been forced into what’s going to be 75 percent of the year with summer numbers. The [impact] that could have on the downtown economy if businesses start closing is scary. Growing up in this town, you don’t want to see that. There’s some people that have been here a long time that I don’t know what their situation is but they’re definitely challenged.”

For Hotel State College’s businesses, the most important factor right now is having students return to town, Shulman said. Penn State classes are scheduled to begin on Aug. 24, with on-campus move-in starting on Aug. 17.

Higgins and fellow commissioner Michael Pipe also said during Tuesday’s board meeting that with Penn State already saying there would be no fans in the stands for football, maintaining an environment where students can return and stay is economically important.

“It’s not necessarily that it’s going to make up the difference. It’s not going to,” Pipe said. “But at least it’s going to be an economic activity occurring here.”

Higgins said sustained student spending “dwarfs football by several degrees of magnitude.”

“Those students will be purchasing food. They’ll be purchasing a broad variety of retail items. They’ll be providing volunteer hours in the community,” Higgins said. “While it is not good news for several sectors within the Centre County economy that [Penn State] football is not going to be played in Centre County, the much bigger news is the students are coming back.”

Smith said he appreciates the work Penn State has done to be able to bring students back and hopes they will be able to remain.

“I think everyone is crossing their fingers that Penn State will make the decision to stay open and not send people home,” he said. “I want to applaud Penn State for the very significant safety moves that they’ve made. I think they’ve gone out of their way to create a safe environment and have done the right things to keep us all open, and we’re hopeful they’ll continue to do so.”

Commissioner Steve Dershem, however, said he has major concerns about the loss of fall football and uncertainty about how many students will actually return to town.

“I think you’re going to be unpleasantly surprised how many individuals decide they can work virtually from their home base,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s just limited to football. This is going to be longstanding and I think very devastating to our local economy.”

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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