GREENVILLE, S.C. – Pete Matsko is not making any money this year.
That’s how Matsko described the impact COVID-19 has already had on his livelihood.
The owner and operator of Backstreets Pub and Grill in downtown Clemson shut the place down in March, caught COVID-19 in June, and finally reopened on August 6, right as Clemson University students began trickling back to town ahead of the fall semester.
For Masko – and the rest of the college town – the pandemic has served as a reminder for how intrinsically local business is tied to the university’s success; students, sports fans and large events draw in upwards of 80% of downtown businesses’ annual revenue, according to local merchants.
“And you wouldn’t have a dozen bars within 200 yards of each other,” Matsko said from his bar’s patio, which sits just off College Avenue, the heart of Clemson’s entertainment district.
And with a COVID-19 shortened football season – or rumors of no football at all – and a non-traditional semester ahead of them, locals are still unsure of the pandemic’s lasting impact.
While Matsko estimates his 28-year-old business has lost about half a million dollars in sales since closing down, city budget documents estimate hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost tax revenues.
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The General Fund, which pays for day-to-day operations and capital projects, is expected to see a 4% decline in revenue versus last year, according to budget proposal documents.
The General Fund is funded through property taxes, permits and licensing fees, local sales taxes and other revenue streams.
The total negative impact of COVID-19 on the city is more than $800,000, of which $500,000 is in lost tourism-related tax dollars, according to Andy Blondeau, city administrator.
As a result, the city is suspending new capital projects – which in the past have been land acquisitions for park expansions or funding new walking trails – for the rest of the fiscal year, they’ve cut $100,000 from the Clemson-Area African American Museum’s budget, and they’ve suspended non-essential travel to include out-of-town training and conferences.
The city also has stopped pursuing special projects that are paid out of the Hospitality and Accommodations tax fund, which help pay for projects that would improve tourism, quality of life and recreation in Clemson.
“These funds are very important to City operations and I think it is worth taking a year off from special projects to preserve them for future years,” Blondeau wrote in budget notes to city council.
Football: The $1-$3 million question
One glimmer of hope for local business owners was the recently announced 2020 football season. Still, Clemson will host five regular-season games this year instead of seven.
Matsko is “hopeful and excited” for football, but isn’t holding his breath.
“With the ways PPP laws (federal Payroll Protection Program) and reopening guidelines are changing every week… I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
Sunday evening, the Mid-American Conference cancelled its fall football season, sparking rumors other major athletic conferences could follow, according to a USA TODAY column.
Even if fans do come out for games, Matsko said he’ll only make half of what he would in normal years with state mandates limiting restaurants and bars to 50% capacity. “And when you make all your money during football season… it’s a real big damper on your year,” he said.
In a typical season, a home football game can generate anywhere from $1-3 million in economic impact and bring in up to 100,000 people, according to Susan Cohen, president of the Clemson Area Chamber of Commerce.
But, like everything else this year, the numbers could drop.
“Some people are still booking weekends to just play it safe … but I think you can expect some additional cancellations when it all shakes out,” Cohen said.
Across the industry, hotels are beginning to see a return to normalcy now that tourists are traveling again, according to Andrew Cajka, owner of Greenville-based Southern Hospitality Group. Cajka’s company manages three university-affiliated hotels in the area, including the Martin Inn on Clemson’s campus.
When he spoke to The Greenville News, Clemson’s football schedule had only been public for a day.
“It’s probably premature to speculate on overall demand and success of the schedule, with it just being published, but at the Martin Inn… we’re confident we’ll have demand this fall,” Cajka said.
He said he expects football fans to book rooms later than normal this year, which is why the inn will reach out to “loyal guests” who book every year to ask about their plans for the season.
“This is so different… this is uncharted territory, so I think we’re all from an industry standpoint, building in a lot more flexibility in how we book.”
Clemson Athletics have not announced how many fans will be allowed in the stadiums, and a survey revealed a majority of fans would be willing to socially distance in order to watch games in-person.
Of course, fewer bodies in stadiums means fewer dollars spent in the city.
“The missing piece on the football season is what they’re going to do with the fan base … and I think there’s still a little bit of breath holding until those last few pieces get figured out,” Cohen said.
As students return, businesses juggle anxiety with relief
Backstreets Bar Manager Courtney Morris has worked there since she was a Clemson student, about eight years. She’s seen slow summers. She’s heard of times when the football team wasn’t the national powerhouse they’ve become and the gameday crowds were not as large.
But she’s never seen anything like COVID-19.
“I never would have thought that it would be like this. I mean, there’s nobody around town. We’re just waiting for the students to come back. If they come back,” Morris said.
While on-campus students can’t move in until mid-September, roughly 15,000 Clemson students live off-campus, and those move-in dates are still in August.
Epoch Clemson, an 800-bed student housing complex in Seneca, has seen increased demand for units this year, especially once Clemson University said students would not move into on-campus housing until mid-September.
“There was a slight pause in May/June while students waited to hear if there would be in-person classes or not. Once they announced there would be in-person classes, leasing picked right back up again,” Kevin Sealey, the developer, said in an email to The Greenville News.
“There’s certainly some cautious optimism because we’re going to start seeing the students come back … More bodies means more business,” Susan Cohen said.
But it also means more risk, Matsko said.
“When all these kids from across the country come back, we’re going to see another spike and maybe another round or two of business closings, but you just have to be prepared for that,” he told The News.
According to President James Clements, Clemson’s campus would have seen “several thousand cases” if they were to bring the full student body back in mid-August, when the school’s projections indicated a peak of the virus in South Carolina. Instead, Clemson will hold virtual classes until at least Sept. 21.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” Matsko said of the virus. “Because my main thing is to keep these employees safe.”
No matter the short-term challenges, Cohen is optimistic Clemson will bounce back.
“I think we can recover fairly quickly … but there are certainly some businesses who are hanging by a thread right now,” she said.
Businesses like Butterfly Eco Beauty Bar in downtown, which opened four weeks before being shut down in mid-March and has yet to reopen, according to the salon’s owner, Nekita Sullivan.
“August and September will be critical … I have to make decisions and I have to make them now.”
As for Matsko, whose bar business has grown right along with the university’s national visibility and prestige, the pandemic poses a challenge, but likely won’t shut his doors.
“We were on for a record year, we were on pace for renovation… now I’m just gonna take a loss and I’ll probably take another two years to retire.”
Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at email@example.com or Twitter @zoenicholson_
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