June 26, 2009
STARKVILLE -- The double-whammy of a deep recession and an annual population drop would put businesses here on edge this summer, but many believe they''ll do just fine.
Some business owners talk about summers in this college town like a necessary evil -- you''ve got to expect them and take preventive steps to guarantee survival. When students leave for the summer, much of a company''s business can suddenly disappear.
"They''re sorely missed," said Dean O''Neal, owner of The Shoe Box on Main Street. "I think the students are a vital part of Starkville''s economy. We''ll definitely see an increase in traffic and sales when they get back."
But not every business owner is so eager to see students returning to town. Some say summer business here is not as slow as one might think, and even the economic slump does not have them worried.
By the numbers
It''s hard to know how many students linger around town over the summer, whether to work, attend summer classes or to just take it easy after graduation, in order to ride out a 12-month lease.
Enrollment numbers can lend an idea of the student population here over the summer.
According to statistics Mississippi State University''s Office of Institutional Research keeps, summer enrollment over the last 10 years has tended to amount to more or less half of what it is in the fall.
For example, 17,824 students were enrolled last fall, and 7,771 were last summer. (The office estimates 8,050 students are on campus this summer; an official number will not be available until September.)
But city sales tax revenues tell another story. Contrary to conventional wisdom, revenues aren''t always lowest in the summer months. Numbers for 12 years -- from 1997 to 2008 -- show city sales tax revenues dipped to their lowest points in June and July only twice, in 2002 and 2005.
Besides numbers, some business owners have observational proof to challenge the college-towns-empty-out-in-the-summer cliché.
"It''s the reverse," said Ted Coggan, who owns the Little Building Cafe on Lafayette Street.
In the summer, he said, people have more time to take it slow and start the day with a cup of joe. At his café, business has gone up in the last few weeks.
Coggan has concentrated on cultivating a steady flow of local customers. His overhead is low, he said, and the locals keep him afloat.
He wouldn''t mind developing a faithful student customer base, but since they''re transient, he said, "you don''t want to hang your hat on that. That''s just the gravy -- if you can get it."
And when Lex Jackson came here in 1992 to open a Reed''s Department Store, many business owners told him to expect business to slacken every summer. But, he said, "We just don''t experience that."
He admitted the store, which is one of two Reed''s he owns -- the other is in Columbus -- does see a drop-off in sales in the summer months. "But it wasn''t nearly as severe as we were expecting or were led to believe," he said.
What about the businesses whose owners passed the cliché on to him?
"The ones that told me are no longer in business," he said.
His wife, Judith Jackson, who manages displays and buys women''s and children''s goods for the two Reed''s stores, said she and the other buyers do not stop bringing in new products over the summer. They continue to stock "the right merchandise," which keeps demand high, she said.
What does change is staffing. During a football game, she said, five employees would be on hand, while on a summer day, there''d be three. "That immediately helps your payroll," bringing as much as a 40 percent cut in costs, she said.
Students make up 60 or 70 percent of the store''s customer base, she estimated. And yet, she said, the migration of some students out of the city for the summer has "never been an issue for us."