‘We Could Be Feeling This for the Next Decade’: Virus Hits College Towns

The town’s Literati Bookstore launched a GoFundMe campaign to keep from going out of business, and created a virtual site for its famed “public typewriter” so customers could keep leaving anonymous typed messages, a company tradition. (“Oh how I wish for a coffee not made by my own hands,” someone typed online in May.)

In State College, Pa., an estimated 65 percent of the community is made up of students at Penn State’s main campus, a local juggernaut that enrolls 46,000 students, employs more than 17,000 nonstudents and injects about $128 million a year into rural Centre County.

The university has announced plans to reopen with double-occupancy dorm rooms and at least half of its classes in person, but it is still not known how many students will return. Also in question is the future of Penn State football, a local economic linchpin that generated $100 million in 2018-19 for the university alone.

Local governments are bracing, too. Amherst, Mass., is scheduled to vote this week on a proposal to increase annual water and sewer fees by an average of $100 per household, a result of a precipitous drop in water use as students have abandoned Hampshire College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts in that New England college town.

Ithaca’s mayor, Svante Myrick, said his city was preparing to cut its $70 million budget by about $14 million, and has furloughed a quarter of its employees, including his assistant. He personally has taken a 10 percent pay cut. A resolution passed earlier this month asked the state to let him authorize blanket rent forgiveness for three months.

Unemployment in the Ithaca metropolitan area has soared to 10 percent from 3 percent before the pandemic. Sales tax receipts have tanked as about $4 million per week in student spending has disappeared along with Cornell’s students, Mr. Myrick said. About two-thirds of the land in his jurisdiction is university-owned, he said, and therefore exempt from property tax.

“We’re going to be looking at Hoovervilles — or maybe Trump Towns — all over the country,” said the mayor, a Democrat who clashes frequently with his upstate area’s Republican congressional delegation. “It’s bad. It’s really bad.”

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