BY CORIE LYNN
Hays, Kan. is a college town.
Fort Hays State University Tigers decorate locals’ sweatshirts and license plate frames and are even affixed to the front of the Hays Walmart.
The University has a large presence within the community, but Hays is also dependent on the student population.
Many businesses participate in “Tiger Gear on Fridays,” which gives discounts to patrons who make purchases while wearing their FHSU clothing. Many more businesses have students as both staff and customers.
“FHSU and downtown businesses create meaningful collaborations throughout the year,” Executive Director of the Downtown Hays Development Corp Sara Bloom said. “The most obvious interactions are with the interns and employees that FHSU provides to businesses. Many businesses in our community are dependent on the workforce FHSU students provide.”
Though this relationship provides discounts to students and staff to business owners, it has also allowed the University to develop downtown through projects such as the building of the downtown pavilion.
As reliant as downtown Hays is on college students, the closure of the University in March of 2020 sent students back to their hometowns and left businesses with fewer staff and customers.
“Nationally it is estimated that students and faculty of universities spend around 40% of their income on local goods and services. It’s also been proven in national studies that highly educated households spend more on the local economy than less-educated peers,” Bloom said.
In a report titled “The Economic Impact of Fort Hays State University on the Local Economy: Fiscal Year 2020,” University economists found that student events and expenditures along with similar FHSU business decreased 40% following the March shut down.
“The most significant effect on the local economy was the reduction in student spending with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -30.5%” the impact report said.
In fact, the report found the total percent change from 2018 to 2020 to be a decrease of 19.5% or $45.5 million.
Pat McGinnis, owner of Breathe Coffee House and founder of Dialogue ministries, felt the loss of students as soon as the University closed.
When McGinnis established the coffee shop and ministry in downtown Hays five years ago, it was his goal to establish a connection and a conversation within Hays, which included connecting college students to the local community.
“The other thing when you’re doing more of a coffee house kind of feel, it’s more geared, at least the environment, I feel, is more geared toward college students,” he said.
McGinnis said that his numbers dropped 75% in March. However, Breathe’s status as a nonprofit helped cushion the drop in business.
“We have a lot of monthly supporters through a coffee club,” he said, “so those people were paying monthly, regardless of how much coffee they drink, whether they come in one time or whether they come in twenty times. So I still had a lot of students that were signed up for coffee club.”
Breathe also saw a bolster through individuals buying coffee in bulk, donations for community meals and free kids’ lunches and through a gift card drive led by Bloom and the DHDC.
McGinnis explained that demographic during a typical year shifts in May from college students to Hays locals and travelers. Combined with the additional business, Breathe began to recover within 60 days of the shutdown.
“And we were running just a to-go and pick-up-at-the-door kind of stuff there for a chunk of time. So, yeah, the college students significantly made a difference. We had to change our entire model,” McGinnis said.
With students once again on campus and Breathe’s dining room open for distanced seating, business is back to what it was prior to the shutdown.
However, McGinnis believes his experience with the pandemic is unique from the other downtown businesses because Breathe relies so heavily on college students and donated support.
As Bloom explains, 2020 was one of the most difficult economic years for local businesses, but it made the community more aware of the importance of shopping locally.
“I will say though, despite the loss of students, the Hays community has really stepped it up to support our local businesses,” she said. “Many of the businesses saw similar or increased sales numbers from 2019 to 2020 because the importance of supporting local was really brought to light because of the pandemic.”
This drive to help support local businesses in the face of the pandemic and a loss of students did encourage business owners to increase their online presence and allow more carryout orders.
With the return of students and University activities to Hays, business will once again increase. This, coupled with business changes, will help to move Hays toward economic recovery.
“There are so many examples of events and improvements that were created because of the pandemic that would have never been thought of without it. Moving forward, we’ll do what we’ve always done, move forward together,” Bloom said.