By Harry Allison
As the Big 10 presidents dither about whether or when to start the fall football season, towns like State College, Pa., are dying.
“It’s like going to a beach town in the winter,” Reading’s Sam Garland, a 40-years-ago Penn State grad, told the New York Times.
Penn State’s president, Eric Barron, said on Friday, after 172 new coronavirus cases were reported in the past week, that classes could soon be moved entirely online — at least temporarily. The new cases have turned Centre County, which had been all but untouched by the virus, into one of the state’s hottest spots — even as students and residents appear to be largely abiding by a recent ordinance that carries a $300 fine for not wearing a mask in public.
“Fall is our spring — our time of renewal,” said Pat Daugherty, who has owned the Tavern, a restaurant with wood-paneled walls and low ceilings, since 1980. On Saturday night, the Tavern served 103 meals — about a fifth of what would have been expected if there had been a home opener.
Some merchants fear that Penn State could send its students home, as it did last spring just after the pandemic hit. According to a study commissioned by the university last year, students generate more than $300 million in spending for the local economy. Fritz Smith, the president of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, estimates that the absence of football will mean a loss of $70 million to $80 million in consumer spending — on top of the $120 million that has been lost already.
“There’s a tremendous ripple effect,” Smith said. For example, hotels operating at 35 percent capacity mean fewer housekeeping, maintenance and front desk jobs. No football games means no concession jobs, overtime for police or extra income for people who rent their homes on football weekends. There may be a reckoning ahead for a business community that attached itself to Penn State like a barnacle to a ship’s hull.
“We’re a one-company town,” Smith said. “That feeling of security has been kicked out from under all of us. When the dust settles, there’s going to be some real soul searching about whether we’re being too reliant on one institution and whether we need to diversify.”
That could mean intensifying efforts to sell the region as a weekend getaway from New York, Philly and Pittsburgh for hiking, biking and farm-to-table dining — or a place for remote workers to relocate. Of course, the best conduit for spreading the word might have been through a football team that was ranked seventh in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Yet while football generated $100 million in revenue for the 2018 season, according to Penn State’s filings with the Department of Education, it is a relative pittance for a university with a $7 billion operating budget for the current school year.
This helps explain why, as much as people here might miss a deeply rooted ritual or even be materially hurt by its absence, there does not seem to be the type of backlash against the prospect of missed games that has occurred in other college towns.