Approximately 2,100 Vassar students arrived at a newly formed campus “bubble” this past August. Due to the stipulation that students cannot leave campus for the duration of the semester, local businesses along College Avenue realized that after an already difficult summer, their fall revenue would be similarly dismal.
“Without Vassar students, the streets are empty,” said Arlington Business Director Robert Legacy.
For some businesses, particularly those that offer products other than food that cannot be delivered, this has proven to be deeply threatening to the vitality of their businesses. According to Legacy, multiple local businesses were not able to survive the losses from the pandemic and had to close, including Nails Plus and Julie’s Restaurant & Catering.
Many of the businesses that have been able to stay open have had to slash their hours significantly.
“We have changed the hours and we cut them relatively and significantly at first, but as the world becomes more and more normal we are increasing the hours again,” said Crafted Kup owner Tanner Townsend.
For Dollar Yard, a discount variety store on College Avenue, the loss of revenue from students has owner Rajesh Sehgal wondering how much longer the business can survive. “We are basically struggling. We don’t have enough fare to come up with the rent, so we are behind on rent,” said Sehgal.
Sehgal estimates that 65 percent of Dollar Yard customers are Vassar students. He said that with this majority vanished, and the remaining 35 percent struggling from the pandemic, Dollar Yard has retained 25 percent of its usual consumer base. “We typically do quite a lot of business during back-to-school, so these three months in which we generate revenue help us all year. In February and March we were struggling, and we were opening and hoping things would get back to normal, but then we realized that campus has a different policy. It’s been adding up. I don’t know how long we can break [even] like this.”
Sehgal said that he tried to apply for government loans, but by the time he had collected all of the necessary forms and information, food chains such as McDonald’s claiming to be small businesses had taken all of the money. “I got all the information and the forms, and when I approached different banks they had all run out of money. I could not get any assistance from the government,” said Sehgal. Legacy explained that this was a nationwide problem: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a $349 billion stimulus plan from the Federal government, quickly ran out of funds after several large chains claimed the money. Some chains like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Steak House later gave the money back.
As Vassar owns many of the buildings on College Avenue, the College has tried to find ways to reduce the amount of rent businesses owe.
“When all businesses were forced to close in March, we allowed all our tenants who had to close to stop paying rent. When businesses started reopening, we worked with each tenant on a plan that worked for them which included a combination of forgiving rent and deferring rent payments into the future. During this whole time we’ve suspended late payment fees because we knew the businesses needed time to recover,” said Vice President for Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll.
Local restaurants have adjusted to the current circumstances by finding ways to serve students from a distance. Many offer delivery services through apps such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, and several come to campus up to three times a week to sell their food in outdoor booths to students.
Twisted Soul, a local restaurant offering a variety of foods from boba to empanadas, estimates that 75 percent of its customers were Vassar students. “Our whole operation is built around the school, the students and the faculty,” said owner and Head Chef Ira Lee. Lee mentioned that business was difficult when the students were not on campus, but now that they are back they are able to make some income from deliveries and coming on to campus twice a week.
When asked if deliveries and selling on campus is equivalent to the amount of business they usually get from students, Lee responded, “It’s not the same, not even close. Students used to frequent our place all the time.”
He continued, “But [on-campus sales and deliveries] are gonna help us try to sustain, which I’m not complaining about. It is what it is.”
Beyond coming to campus for food sales, some businesses have found that the local community has frequented their stores enough to offset the absence of Vassar students.
Manager of My Market II Minoo Amirhosseini shared that more community members started coming to the store to avoid having to go to large supermarkets. However, their business has been much slower without Vassar students, who, according to Amirhosseini, account for 50 percent of their consumers. Initially, My Market II was able to bring items to students quarantined at Vassar; sometimes parents even called and requested for supplies to be delivered to students, but they cannot deliver any more due to limited employees currently working.
“Unfortunately we don’t have enough people working here: Only two in the morning and two in the afternoon. We talked about the possibility of [doing deliveries] with the owner and other ones here but looks like it may be really difficult and impossible for us to do that. One thing is getting the orders, and the delivery issue that one person has to leave the store, and there is nobody to cover for him” she explained.
As a potential solution, Amirhosseini proposed a plan in which someone from Vassar could collect supplies from the store and deliver them to campus. Such an arrangement would require approval from the College.
Legacy explained that beyond food and drug stores, nearly all local businesses are suffering from the lack of Vassar students. He mentioned that the Post Office has lost business, as have local beauty salons, laundromats and the local transportation companies, since no Vassar students now ride the buses. Another factor is that visiting parents no longer come to Vassar, a demographic which usually brought in revenue for businesses on the weekends. Prospective students visiting campus for admissions reasons are another lost source of income.
Legacy shared that in order for these businesses to recover financially, it will take lifting the 50 percent occupancy maximum for restaurants and allowing Vassar students to leave campus. Seghal reiterated that point and was hopeful that students might soon be able to visit businesses on College Avenue next semester. “We’re just hoping that Vassar will give some flexibility to the students so that they can come out on certain days and shop at certain stores,” said Seghal.