Brace yourself: The students aren’t coming

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EAST LANSING — In the midst of a skeletal Welcome Week following Michigan State University’s decision to keep classes entirely online, downtown East Lansing businesses are staring down the prospect of shopping doldrums that extend far beyond the summer months. Factor in a canceled football season and suddenly business owners are looking at a year in which they will have to hustle harder than ever.

“As a business that caters almost exclusively to the university — I sell green and white stuff and I sell college textbooks — I go where the university goes. If the university’s not open, I’m not open,” said Greg Ballein, manager and co-owner of Student Book Store.

Student Book Store is one of many shops located smack dab on Grand River Avenue, the main shopping strip of East Lansing. Ballein’s store not only normally attracts thousands of students in need of textbooks, but it also entices passersby with its Spartan-flavored merchandise. Ballein says he can’t overemphasize how important it is for him to capitalize on the opening rush of a new semester.

“The consequences to downtown are going to be devastating. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. It’s going to be overwhelming for some businesses, and they’re just not going to make it,” he said. “The lack of people downtown is devastating and beyond noticeable.”

Officials at Michigan State University said they only expect 2,800 students to live on campus, down from about 14,500 students in a typical year. But City Manager George Lahanas and Mayor Aaron Stephens have both claimed they’ve seen an increased demand at apartment complexes and rental homes across the city after MSU officials started discouraging students from living on campus.

Neither the city nor MSU officials could offer any statistical evidence of the increased off-campus housing demand, but the speculation provides some hope for businesses concerned about decreasing sales. Stephens also said the city plans to reopen an outdoor dining district downtown before the winter.

In order to deal with a closed storefront from March to June, Ballein said Student Book Store had to pump up sales through its website and increased communication with its clientele through social media and email marketing. Student Book Store also received emergency funding through the Paycheck Protection Program and the Michigan Work Share program.

But increased e-commerce and loans aren’t enough to replace Student Book Store’s usual business model. “Things fell apart for us downtown. It did not go well for us this summer, with the outbreak we had here locally,” Ballein said.

Some were more fortunate in their ability to adapt to online sales. Action Board Sports, a skateboard and longboard shop located downtown on Grand River Avenue, has yet to re-open its storefront and has handled all of its sales digitally since the pandemic took hold. Owner Jim MacGregor said the pandemic has caused a massive supply-chain interruption, and the resulting lack of stock to line his shelves is keeping him from re-opening his doors.

“When the coronavirus hit and everybody was stuck at home, we saw unprecedented demand in April, May and June and suppliers could not keep up. When July hit, everything coming from other countries was stuck. It’s an industry-wide problem we’ve never seen before.”

Still, MacGregor is bracing for the sting of not having a ready-made customer base of students and newcomers to East Lansing, who come check out his shop while they hang out and peruse downtown.

“When the students get here in late-August, we stay busy with in-store sales until mid-October — depending on the weather,” MacGregor said. “We move to online through the winter, and when spring hits we see another big influx of in-store sales. This year is going to be quite a bit different.”

MacGregor said he is concerned for the businesses that can’t cater to an online sales model, worrying they will not make it without the usual foot traffic. “Essentially, all small retail in East Lansing is going to be affected very badly. It will be a different atmosphere going forward.”

Another factor taken for granted is the staff and faculty of MSU, who, like the students, won’t be coming back to East Lansing in their usual numbers.

“Faculty and staff are constantly downtown during the day, taking lunch, going downtown to grab things. Their dismissal is not a good situation for anybody in East Lansing,” Ballein said.

The lack of sports is an entirely different problem. The MSU basketball team is a perennial contender for a deep NCAA Tournament run, while the football team is oft-poised for a stab at the College Football Playoff National Championship. That kind of sports success generates the hype that attracts thousands to East Lansing, which in turn puts money in the cash registers of local businesses. Sparty’s absence leaves behind a punishing financial void.

“When you have a winning program like that, it makes people want to affiliate themselves with not only Michigan State but East Lansing and come down here and patronize,” Ballein said.

It’s not just shops like Ballein’s that will be hit hard. Without game day, East Lansing restaurants owners must also prepare for decreased foot traffic and shrunken revenue.

Sultan’s Mediterranean recently opened a new location in East Lansing. Owner Bassam Mahmoud has had his restaurant open for 25 years and decided to relocate in July. The new location has only been open for a few weeks. 

“I was trying to downsize my business,” he said. “The rent was too high, and then COVID-19 happened in March, so I decided to find another place so I could pay less rent.”

Mahmoud is excited for the new location because it offers him more exposure. “We’re across from MSU on Grand River Avenue now,” Mahmoud said. “My old location was kind of hidden away from the main traffic, but the new one is much more visible.”

With less students, staff and faculty coming to MSU, Mahmoud is concerned. “I used to cater for meetings for different departments. This will definitely affect my business.”

Rob Wasserman, owner of SNAP Pizza, a newly opened pizza restaurant in East Lansing, understands that businesses everywhere are suffering. “I think we’re taking it day-by-day like everyone else around here in town. Running an operation or a business is not an easy thing to do in this environment,” he said. “First come, first served. I’m focused on the well-being of my customers and staff.”

Being a new business in East Lansing hasn’t been easy for SNAP, but Wasserman said his landlord has been understanding about how difficult it is to survive during the coronavirus outbreak. “We’re one of the new kids on the block. But we’ve been very lucky that they worked with us to make sure we could sustain ourselves,” Wasserman said. “We’re in here for the long haul. As long as everyone’s working together, it’ll be fine.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected other SNAP locations across the country, Wasserman said. “Business has been terrible,” he laughed. “We’re doing 40 to 50 percent of what we thought we’d be doing. It’s frustrating. But you can take a little grain of salt with that. We’re all in the same boat. We don’t see things lightening up until spring.”

Wasserman has seen businesses around East Lansing close. Espresso Royale, a popular East Lansing café for several decades, closed its doors permanently in June. But he acknowledged that cities across the country are in the same situation. “We all just have to work together on the business side,” Wasserman said. “Both landlords and retailers. Some people are getting greedy and think we should do business as normal. But if we’re all understanding, things should be fine.”

Wasserman is cautiously optimistic. “Those that can be business savvy and sustain ourselves during this time period will reap the benefits of that to a certain degree. That’s the most important thing. Obviously, treading water is all you can do at this moment.”

Michael Krueger, owner of Crunchy’s Bar, laughed when asked if he was dreading the upcoming fall semester at MSU. “Looking forward to it and dreading it,” he said. “It stinks not to have fall sports and those things, but I’m also looking forward to an influx of people coming into town.”

Krueger said his main objective is to keep his customers safe. He said that many students live off-campus anyway, so his main customer base probably won’t be present. 

“Unfortunately, we’re still stuck at 50 percent capacity, so we can’t make any real money. The people who regularly frequent Crunchy’s just won’t be in town,” Krueger said. “Without trivia night, karaoke night or Crunchy’s comedy night, there simply won’t be as many crowds gathering at the bar.”

Krueger said that irresponsible students could hurt the East Lansing economy. “The East Lansing economy looks bleak right now,” Krueger said. “Lots of students aren’t wearing masks, and it makes people not want to come here.”

While 2020 continues to prove tough, Ballein offered advice for those who want to help mediate the hardship on small businesses.

“Try to keep your business local and remember that masks are required. So wear your mask, come patronize East Lansing and keep the businesses alive that you love and appreciate. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

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