Many local retailers make up this shortfall with the seasonal boost to tourism; staffing problems can also be a hassle
There’s no doubt, say many local business leaders, that the approximately 24,000 students who attend college in Whatcom County from September to June have an enormous impact on the local economy.
After all, students at Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College and Northwest Indian College frequent local restaurants, work part-time jobs, volunteer in the community and shop at various department and grocery stores.
However, in the summer months, when the combined enrollment of the colleges shrinks to around 6,000, and thousands of students flock from the community to return to their hometowns, work at internships, other jobs, and travel, not too many business owners are financially impacted by their absence.
Meanwhile, those businesses that are affected by student migration say they’ve learned over the years how to adapt to the situation.
“Logically, sure, there’s got to be something pulled out of the economy when students stop their spending, but you don’t see much of an impact on the retail side,” said Hart Hodges, Director of Western’s Center of Economics and Business Research.
“It seems to be the case that there’s enough activity in the summer, with tourists, camps and what not, that the retail spending doesn’t take a big dip in the summer. There’s boating activity, people coming on the Alaska ferry, and construction is quite big so you get other seasonal or cyclical swings.”
Some commodities, though, do take a dive in sales when students are gone. Not surprisingly among them: pizza and beer.
“We notice it immediately,” said Hugh Haas, owner of Pizza Time on 32nd Street. “Once school ends and the kids all leave town, it cuts into our business quite significantly.”
During the summer, Haas said, his business usually is down about 25 to 30 percent, compared to when school’s in.
At some grocery stores near Western, such as the Lakeway Cost Cutter and southside Food Pavilion, sales of pizza’s adult companion, beer, also drops in the summer, though store managers declined to say how much.
“Our evening business, past eight o’clock, typically slows down in the summer,” said Scott Whipple, a manager at Lakeway Cost Cutter. “Definitely, our beer sales go down and it does affect business.”
Some popular watering holes with the college crowd also slow down.
Kathy Welch, general manager at the Fairhaven Pub & Martini Bar, who’s also worked at The Royal, said both businesses are typically quieter in the earlier evening, with fewer people needing to beat crowds.
In addition to impacting sales, for some businesses the exodus of college students can also affect staffing.
At Red Robin, said manager Josie Presley, about 80 percent of her 100 employees are college students and, come June and July, she can expect to lose around 15 team members.
Matthew White, a manager at Bellis Fair’s Abercrombie & Fitch, said about 90 percent of the clothing store’s employees are Western and Whatcom students.
“Right when they leave, we have to deal with losing a lot of people,” he said.
Some college students who work for franchises in other parts of the state or country where they attend school, can return to Bellingham in the summer and find work at their hometown locations.
“We have a lot of kids who work here who work at the Abercrombie where they go to school,” White said.
That means many of his summer employees are already familiar with store procedures and merchandise.
Students who stick around town can usually end up working more hours, and earning more money, by covering shifts for students who’ve departed or filling in for older employees on vacation.
Cost Cutter’s Whipple, and Red Robin’s Presley, said they rarely have a shortage of college students looking to pick up extra shifts in the summer, as many are saving money for fall quarter.
The departure of college students also opens doors for locals.
Sue Ellen Heflin, executive director of the Whatcom Volunteer Center, said college students make up about 15 percent to 20 percent of her volunteers during the school year, but that volunteer-dependent organizations aren’t usually impacted by their disapperance in the summer.
“I think it’s sort of a trade-off,” she said. “As the college students leave, high school and middle school students become available. While we look forward to the college kids coming back in the fall, there isn’t a big vaccuum formed when they leave.”
Dave Rasmusson, store manager at the southside Food Pavilion, said many of his summer jobs go to Whatcom County natives returning from other universities.
“It’s harder to find people in the summer,” he said. “Typically, we’ll find people who go to school elsewhere and come home for the summer.”
Some businesses that anticipate a dip in sales in the summer, with the loss of college students, have found measures that offset losses.
The Fairhaven Pub and Royal, Welch said, don’t immediately fill positions left vacant by their student employees who exit town in June; They wait to hire replacements toward the end of August when students start coming back to town.
Avel Jordan, an owner at Casa Que Pasa, said his profits dip about 10 percent in the summer.
“We usually cut back a little on staff and inventory,” he said.
Despite the absence of college students around town in the summer, their year-round contributions to Whatcom County’s economy are staggering.
According to figures put together by Western’s Center of Economics and Business Research, Western, including its students, faculty and staff, injected at least $140 million into the Whatcom County economy last year.
Hodges said that number takes into account things such as payroll, construction, utilities, goods and services. It also includes student spending on books, supplies, rent, food and personal items. However, some money spent on rent, books and other items is not included because it leaves the county’s economy almost immediately. Also, the spending figure can change noticeably depending on construction activity.
Whatcom, Bellingham Tech and Indian College administrators said they haven’t conducted similar research. Hodges also noted no attempt has been made to measure the impact of spending by visiting sports teams, parents, etc.
Longtime Bellingham business owners say the loss of college students used to have a greater impact on summer sales but, as the town has expanded, that hasn’t been the case anymore.
“Several years ago, there was a more distinct difference in mid-June to September,” said Brown & Cole Stores spokeswoman Sue Cole. “At particular stores, like Lakeway and Cordata, you’d notice more of a decline but, with the way the community is growing, it’s not as noticeable as it used to be.”
Said Casa Que Pasa’s Jordan: “There’s also more and more tourists around town, year after year, and that helps.”
Summer events at Western, and other events such as the Festival of Music, which draw visitors by the thousands, also help the
summer economy, said John Cooper, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Western’s important during the (summer), as far as bringing in conferences and sports,” he said. “While students may leave, we get a number of events that come to town, like youth camps, sports events and symposiums, that have a positive effect.”
While Bellingham may not be a college town in the sense that some businesses have to close in the summer, or suffer significantly, business owners don’t take college students for granted.
“Bellingham’s much bigger than it used to be, but when you have Western, Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College and the Northwest Indian College, I think it will always have the flavor of a college town, and we’re awfully fortunate,” Cole said.
“Beyond the obvious financial benefits to supermarkets and gas stations and movie theaters and retail stores, there’s just a real energy higher education brings to the community. You get so many more interesting people and points of view, and it makes the community a vibrant place.”