As customers enjoyed Neopolitan pizza at Thompson and Bleecker early Wednesday evening, George Papachryssanthou sat in his downtown restaurant hoping that things would be OK — but he knew that the next few months would be tough for business as many students desert campus during Cornell’s move to online classes.
“The next two months are two of the busiest months in Ithaca. There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Papachryssanthou said, later adding: “It’s gonna hurt.”
Gregor Brous, who owns student staples Collegetown Bagels and Rulloff’s in Collegetown along with Ithaca Bakery and Agava, said the uncertainty will have a dramatic effect on local business.
“Here in Collegetown, we call our season Cornell. That’s it, when Cornell leaves, our business goes away,” Brous said, adding that increased development and the lack of parking means locals aren’t attracted to places like the College Avenue CTB.
“We used to have a nine-month business and [because of changes in Collegetown] we’re down to seven,” Brous said. “So if we lose April and May then we’re down to five this year.”
“What we hope is that we will be able to stay in business,” said Brous, whose eateries are already in a period of intense transition due to the upcoming demolition of the building that houses CTB and Rulloff’s Restaurant that will force CTB across the street.
“[The College Ave. CTB] is our busiest location,” Brous said. “So it will have a dramatic effect on our entire business.”
I’ve been writing about Ithaca for twelve years. I have never been as worried as I am today. So many people are going to struggle.
For Ithacans, covid-19 isn’t just a health crisis, it’s an economic crisis.
— Brian Crandall (@Ithacating) March 10, 2020
The spring months are the busiest time of the year for Ithaca restaurants and other local businesses as students enjoy the warm weather, families come for campus visits and thousands descend upon the city for commencement. Cornell’s decision to shift to online classes — and the fact that many students will leave Ithaca for spring break and not return — is leaving business owners wondering how the changes will impact their employees and ability to stay afloat through the summer.
Papachryssanthou pointed out that he sees Ithaca as “most likely the least dynamic” of the Ivy League college towns.
Universities like Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia have Boston, Philadelphia and New York City markets to fall back on, but “we don’t have a larger city to depend on when trying to find ways we can compensate for the loss of students,” he said.
Papachryssanthou, who owns three local businesses with his wife, Milany, said Cornell students account for around 80 percent of his businesses’ revenue. In their two Collegetown stores — Ithaca Wine and Spirits and Chatty Cathy Cafe — it’s closer to 100 percent.
In addition to students who patronize the College Avenue CTB, Brous said his companies rely on Cornell to keep its business running with wholesale and catering orders of bagels, breads and pastries from Ithaca Bakery.
“There’s a huge portfolio of our business which is connected and dependent on Cornell,” Brous said.
Mayor calls for federal action, warns of ‘horrific economic impact’
According to a 2014 report by Cornell’s Division of Budget and Planning, the University accounted for 20 percent of Tompkins County’s economic activity.
We need immediate and forceful federal action – we will see a horrific economic impact.
Right now Ithaca has the strongest economy in NY state.
Three months from now?
We need paid leave, small business grants, and a limited time universal basic income. https://t.co/9qHatd2shq
— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) March 10, 2020
The move to online classes, the cancellation of events like Cornell Days and the uncertainty surrounding commencement weekend will have a ripple effect throughout the local economy, one that has seen strong growth in the years since the 2008 financial crisis while nearby areas of New York State struggle.
Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said he has asked University officials to work with the city, state and federal governments to “develop a plan that will support our local economy and make sure that all the pain isn’t borne on the back of our lowest-paid workers.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if by June, with all the students gone, we find that a ton of small businesses that have been around for a long time have closed their doors,” Myrick told The Sun.
“I already spoke with the decision-makers at Cornell and expressed to them my deep concern as to what this will mean for our local business and workers and what it will mean for them,” Myrick told The Ithaca Voice. “Lost jobs, lost shifts. At hotels, restaurants, bars and retail stores all through Tompkins County, this could be a shock unlike we have ever seen before. There is no plan for losing the business of the two or three biggest spending months from students.”
On Twitter, Myrick called for “immediate and forceful federal action” to prevent “a horrific economic impact.”
“We need paid leave, small business grants, and a limited time universal basic income,” Myrick wrote.
Summer starts early, cutting down on businesses’ ‘lifeline’ months
Ithaca’s student-reliant economy makes April and May two of the most important months for local businesses. Mid-February through May, according to Papachryssanthou, represent “the lifeline of business.” Summers are slow for businesses — the city’s population essentially doubles during the school year — and for some students, summer is starting two months early.
Robbie Finch, 32, has been working at CTB for about four years, and said while he “isn’t too concerned,” he expects April and May to be similar to the summer months, when most customers are tourists and locals rather than Cornell students. Finch said he expects a reduction in the number of customers who come to CTB before Cornell sporting events due to Wednesday’s announcement that spring sports were canceled.
Finch sat with new hire Paige Twining at CTB on Thursday, answering Twining’s questions about the job as the two ate bagel sandwiches and sipped on iced pink drinks — Thursday was Twining’s first day on the job. Laughing, she said she didn’t expect a global health pandemic to affect her new role.
If he has to cut hours, Brous said his “full timers, long-term people should feel fairly [secure].” If the Collegetown CTB cuts down on hours, Finch said he would likely pick up extra hours at the downtown location.
CTB and Brous’ other stores have upped their focus on sanitation in the last couple weeks. Finch told The Sun that CTB employees were wiping down tables, chairs, counters and door handles every 30 minutes. A bottle of Purell with a sticker hand-labeled “Corona Killer” was available by the cash register at the bar.
Papachryssanthou is hopeful that many students — especially upperclassmen who have leases signed for Collegetown apartments through May — will stay on campus.
“You sort of understand what you’re getting yourself into when you open a business,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a part of the game that we’re in … For those who could stay back, [who] have leases that they’re committed to to stay until the end of May, it would help tremendously.”
Brous also said he expects many graduate students and upperclassmen will remain in Ithaca.
Papachryssanthou said he worries about the impact the economic slowdown will have on his 20 or so employees. He said he’s considering limiting his businesses’ hours to the busier days of the week, and while he worries about the uncertain immediate future, he’s confident his business will be “fine long-term.”
“There’s different approaches to how people do it. Some people will just lay people off,” Papachryssanthou said. “The people I work with, I happen to care a good amount about, so we’re willing to foot whatever expenses in addition to expenses that we’ll need to pay in order to sort of get through this all together.”
As New York State and the federal government weigh their options, Myrick said the COVID-19 outbreak is both a health and economic crisis.
“It’s now a war on two fronts,” he told The Ithaca Voice. “How do we keep people healthy and how do you keep our economy moving? I’m prepared to do everything that we can do at the city level. But the scale of these problems, the ripple effects are absolutely unprecedented — I have no doubt that our local tools are not going to be enough.”
Papachryssanthou said he hasn’t heard from the city about plans to help businesses through upcoming months, but is hopeful that government solutions will present businesses and workers like his with solutions in the coming days. Brous also said he’s heard “nothing” from the city, but understands that “anything that the city provides is going to have to come from higher up from the state or Feds.”
“There’s talks that the Treasury Department will postpone income tax due dates, maybe some type of payroll credit,” Papachryssanthou said. “I think all those things will help, making sure that paid sick leave is available for people, that people that we may have to lay off will be getting some type of government assistance.”
Myrick and both business owners said solutions to prevent economic decline will require action form Cornell, the key economic power in the area.
“All the decisions that [Cornell is] making at this point clearly have a negative effect on the economy and the business environment, but they have good reason for it,” Brous said. “I mean, they’re trying to promote health, keep people safe. … And I think that those needs to be the first priority. So as soon as that gets under control, now we can start thinking about, well, how can we make this area active as quickly as possible?”
“I would hope that [Cornell officials] keep an eye as we move into the future on the impact,” Myrick told The Sun. “This could really affect Cornell when students return in the fall and half the retail stores in the Commons and half the stores and restaurants in Collegetown have closed.”
Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd Ward), echoed the mayor’s calls for state and federal intervention on Twitter.
“The whole county will hurt, but I’ll be giving Collegetown businesses more love than usual for a while,” Nguyen wrote.
We’re a resilient community, but I share the mayor’s concern. We will need state and federal help. Businesses, homeowners, TCAT… so many of us rely on Cornell, IC, TC3.
The whole county will hurt, but I’ll be giving Collegetown businesses more love than usual for a while https://t.co/DmZdBz2nZ9
— Ducson Nguyen (@duc2ndward) March 11, 2020
With updates coming every hour and mounds of uncertainty surrounding how Cornell’s shift to online classes will impact businesses, Papachryssanthou and Brous are both crossing their fingers that the virus’ spread will end soon and that their businesses will see a return to normalcy.
“I’m sure if this goes on for any period of time that multiple businesses in Ithaca will be out of business,” Brous said. “And we want to not be one of them.”
“If there’s anything that is borderline fragile, it may not be here when you guys get back,” Papachryssanthou said.
Alex Hale ’21 contributed reporting to this article.