Lack of students hits economy hard
In a span of less than two weeks, Farmville has gone from being a two-college town to a no-college town in an effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The departure of most of Longwood University’s and Hampden-Sydney College’s (H-SC) student bodies for the spring will have an undeniable economic impact on Farmville.
Some businesses will be more affected than others, but few, if any, will be completely unscathed.
Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV announced Thursday evening, March 19, that like so many institutions, for the remainder of the semester the university will proceed with teaching online rather than in person to help limit COVID-19’s spread.
He stated that with that announcement, and continuing to follow guidance from the Virginia Department of Health, the university was also asking students to return home, at least those who are able to do so safely.
Hampden-Sydney President Dr. Larry Stimpert announced Friday, March 20, that the college would be completing the spring semester through remote instruction. This came with the understanding that most students will not be remaining on campus.
Uptown Coffee Cafe Owner Jason Mattox said the Longwood and Hampden-Sydney student bodies leaving is a sad reality for a lot of businesses in town, including his own.
“It’s going to impact us, for sure, as well as many of the town businesses and hotels and retail and food establishments, from people coming in for lodging to whatever,” he said.
Brad Watson, managing director of the Farmville branch of Davenport & Company, offered his personal opinion that the effects on the county of both Longwood and Hampden-Sydney not being in session right now with in-person classes is pretty incredible.
“It’s not just about not having students here,” he said Friday, March 20. “It’s the social distancing we are asked to do. I walked down Main Street a few days ago. Not many cars parked there. Almost no one shopping. Almost no one in a restaurant. Signs on every business door saying they are closed or closed to visitors.”
Farmville Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors Chairman Chris Brochon said regulations from the government to fight COVID-19 had already impacted local business’ patronage levels. But the loss of college students in the area could limit businesses in another way.
“I think the biggest impact with the students is going to be particularly the help in the restaurants, because most of those kids, those are the jobs they have in town,” he said.
Mattox said he is having to cut staff, but he does still have some Longwood student workers, and some are even actively looking out for each other.
“I had a girl call me the other day (and say), ‘Hey, I’d like to go home for the next half a week and give my shifts to somebody that’s staying in town, if you would,’” Mattox said.
He said Uptown is responding to the government recommendation to limit the size of gatherings by allowing no more than 10 customers in his restaurant’s dining room.
March to May is usually a good run for Uptown with the Longwood student body in town because of fundraiser nights, parents visiting, graduation, Mother’s Day and having more student workers, Mattox stated. While no H-SC students are currently working at Uptown, springs typically feature some of them as customers, along with Hampden-Sydney administrators, professors and parents in town for a game.
“If we can get people transitioned to online and carry out and abide by the dining room rule and work on minimum staffing, I think we can weather the storm if it doesn’t get much worse,” he said. “But if they start cracking down and closing places, that’s when we’ve really got to back up and punt and say, ‘What are we going to do long term?’”
Kris Goin, store manager of the Barnes & Noble contracted with Longwood, noted Friday the state and health department measures enacted to stem COVID-19’s spread had already limited his store’s business before Longwood made its decision about the spring semester.
“It’s safe to say that even as of now, when the students were still here, those that remain, our sales have basically been nonexistent — they just dropped dramatically,” he said.
He stated that the vast majority of his store’s cafe sales are to people who live in the community.
“Our amount of customers coming in just from the community is nowhere near what it has been,” he said.
Goin noted it is going to be extremely hard to provide hours for his temporary, seasonal workers, some of whom are Longwood students.
Longwood does provide an option for students who have health or other important considerations for themselves or family members that result in them needing to remain in university housing. They had to register for this opportunity no later than Monday, March 23.
“Where I’m at right now is basically trying to figure out, do I have the hours moving forward to warrant some of these students filling out the paperwork, staying here and not going home simply because they want to continue working?” Goin said Friday. “And I’m just not sure I’m going to have those hours moving forward.”
H-SC also offers a possibility of remaining on campus for students with extenuating circumstances who wish to remain or to return.
Emily Williams, the operations manager at the Hampton Inn in Farmville, said the hotel has had a lot of cancellations, some of which are due specifically to the loss of the college spring sports season.
“We had teams staying with us,” she said. “They were competing with Longwood, and then we’ve had some graduation cancellations, even though they haven’t announced yet.”
Reveley stated Longwood is committed to holding in-person commencement ceremonies, but when they will happen is unclear right now. Stimpert noted H-SC is making the same commitment and will announce the timing of the event as soon as possible.
Walker’s Diner Co-Owner Steve Graham said his restaurant does not have any Longwood students on his staff. Walker’s customers do include some Longwood students, though, and he acknowledged business could be better.
Jeff Shanaberger, general manager for Ellington Energy, which operates the Hampden-Sydney Exxon on Farmville Road, said H-SC students are a large percentage of the gas station’s business.
“Any time the college is out, we see a decrease in traffic, and now that there are a lot of schools, public schools closed and a lot of businesses have shut down, yeah, it’s affected us,” he said. “We’ve seen I’d say a fairly significant decrease — not huge, but we definitely have noticed it. There’s a decrease in traffic and customers.”
Longwood Assistant Vice President for Communications Matthew McWilliams said the university has not made any staffing changes as a result of the decision to move classes fully online for the remainder of the semester and the decision to ask students who can to return home.
“We believe more than 90 percent of students have returned home, but Longwood’s campus remains open for students who have told us they need to stay in campus housing for family or other considerations,” he stated. “Dorrill Dining Hall (take-out service only), Greenwood Library and other campus facilities that students rely on are operating on a reduced schedule, all with practices in place to ensure social distancing.”