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College Towns Like Rolla Hit Especially Hard In Coronavirus Economy

A Public House Brewing Company employee brings pizza to a curbside customer. It's a small business trying to make it in a collge town where the students have largely left town. 4-02-20
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
A Public House Brewing Company employee brings pizza to a curbside customer. It's a small business trying to make it in a college town where the students have largely left town.

ROLLA — Like most small businesses in the U.S., those in college towns are trying to find a way to stay afloat amid stay-at-home orders and social distancing because of the coronavirus.

But they often face a double whammy, with a sizable amount of the population leaving as dorms are closed and classes are moved online. That’s what’s happening in Rolla, home to Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Rolla is a town of about 20,000, and that includes about 8,000 students at Missouri S&T. While an exact count isn’t known, many of those students left campus and the city to return home to complete their classes online.

“It’s especially hard for some businesses in a college town, because you are losing a lot of your customer base with the students leaving,” said Michael Davis, an economics professor at Missouri S&T. “It probably varies quite a bit depending on what the business is. Certain businesses are going to appeal to college students more than other ones will.”

Taco and Burrito Express is one of those businesses. Jose Martinez opened the Mexican restaurant in February just a block away from campus with the idea that students would flock there for reasonably priced food, margaritas and beer. 

Taco and Burrito Express tried pickup and delivery, but the lack of college students in Rolla led them to close. 04-22-20
Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Taco and Burrito Express tried pickup and delivery, but the lack of college students in Rolla led them to close.

Martinez said the first month went very well, and the business that employs five people full-time was establishing a customer base.

“We were starting to get pretty much college kids coming in, a lot of them were starting to know that we were there, but pretty much after St. Patrick’s Day, school got canceled, everything just went downhill,” Martinez said.

Taco and Burrito Express tried to convert to curbside pickup, but with the college students gone and the restaurant being so new, it lasted less than a week before Martinez decided it wasn’t worth it to stay open.

“I don’t know if we will be able to reopen when this is over. I hope so, but I just don't know,” he said.

Other businesses that have been around longer are doing what they can to survive. Public House Brewing Company has two locations — one in Rolla near campus and another in nearby St. James.

The restaurant and brewery closed the St. James location, but even with the college students gone, the Rolla restaurant is still open with curbside pickup and delivery.

“We’ve definitely seen a downturn in terms of top-line revenues. But overall, the community, especially S&T, has really rallied,” said Josh Stacy, founder and co-owner of Public House. “A lot of people want to see us make it through. They make a point of ordering from us. In that respect, being local helps.”

Public House also sells beer in cans, both directly to customers and to liquor and grocery stores, which is helping keep the doors open and people employed. 

But for the businesses that get support from university faculty and staff, that community support may soon hit a stress point. The state of Missouri is cutting funding to higher education during the current budget year by 15%. 

In reaction to that, administrators system wide are taking a 10% pay cut, and there may be layoffs at all campuses, including Rolla. 

“We may end up having to release some folks, having to furlough some people,” said S&T Chancellor Mo Dehghani during a recent virtual town hall meeting broadcast online. “We are not there at this moment, but we may end up to that point depending on, again, the dynamic of the situation.”

“I do know we have some difficult, difficult decisions to make. But we will make them with everyone’s welfare in mind,” Dehghani said.

If those layoffs and furloughs come, that will mean even more stress on a town that has seen its population decrease in addition to the other setbacks related to the pandemic.

But it’s not all bad news. While the university is Rolla’s biggest employer, the second largest is Phelps Health Medical Center, the biggest hospital in 50 miles in any direction. That is some help for the local economy.

“I would say Rolla, because you have a university that will have a negative impact, and the second biggest, Phelps Health, is probably having a positive impact, I think maybe that Rolla may be a little more resilient, at least in the immediate term,” Davis said.

But the economics professor said the real question is what happens in the long term, specifically when stay-at-home orders are lifted. And in the case of Rolla, if the university’s students are allowed to come back in the fall and how many of them will.

“The fall semester will be here. We will re-emerge successfully,” Dehghani said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.