Returning college students spur economy

By Laurie Hamame -

Thousands of Oberlin College students come and go through town each year and they have a big impact.

Many restaurants, shops, and bookstores along West College Street and Rt. 58 have a lot fewer college student customers during the summer.

Ratsy Kemp, owner of vintage store Ratsy’s, said college conference events and seasonal theater programs are key during the off-months. But this school year, she’s already had more business than she normally does thanks to a new orientation initiative that encourages students to shop locally.

To get involved, students can tweet photos with the hashtag #DiscoverOberlin and show themselves eating at local restaurants, buying supplies at local stores, or hanging out in front of other businesses.

The top three tweets in terms of likes and retweets will get a $15 gift card to the local business of their choosing.

“I will tell you that Monday and Tuesday when the freshmen were moving in, I had more business than I normally do, so I think the college’s support of the downtown has helped us a lot,” Kemp said. “At least so far. It’s only been a couple days. But I have to say I appreciate it.”

Festivals, programs, and tours also contribute to the local economy during the summer.

Jason Adelman, owner of The Feve, said business is highest in July because of the amount of activity happening in town.

During the school year, late-night bar business increases but the restaurant isn’t as student-driven as it used to be because local support is already so high.

Kristy Dunn, a manager at the Black River Cafe, feels differently: “Don’t get me wrong, our summer is good. We love having our regulars, our out-of-town visitors. But the kids — they keep us alive,” she said. “The kids are our bread and butter. We need them to come in.”

Business falls during the summer for the Blue Rooster Bakehouse, said owner Wendy Boes, “but not to a stand-still or anything.”

Locals, day visitors, and college tours are the main demographics in the off-season, but the second school rolls around, Boes said business takes off as many parents call to order birthday cakes.

The business owners we talked to agreed that January is the quietest of months, except for Joe McHugh, a sales rep at Swerve Bike Shop. Students are still riding their bikes around campus, even when snow piles in heaps, he said.

Just before the school year begins, he tells his regular customers to shop early to beat the rush of about 3,000 college-related customers. Otherwise, the store will be “an onslaught of craziness” because returning students are looking to get tune-ups or buy new rides.

Within the first three days of orientation, 70 bikes were sold and McHugh confidently predicted the number would double by the end of the week.

“I would say the students are 10 to 15 percent of our business but it’s pretty much all at once,” he said. “It’s weird. It’s like when the students are gone, everybody from around the area knows they can come into town and when the students are here, they kind of avoid it because you have to wait in line at The Feve or there’s no room at the coffee shops.”

Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.

By Laurie Hamame