How State College businesses are getting creative with Penn State students gone for summer

A sign promoting the restaurants and bars of Hotel State College that are hiring hangs over The Corner Room sign on Friday, June 7, 2019.
A sign promoting the restaurants and bars of Hotel State College that are hiring hangs over The Corner Room sign on Friday, June 7, 2019. adrey@centredaily.com

It’s summertime, and that means some downtown State College businesses are feeling the heat from Penn State students’ summer hiatuses.

“We generally see a fair decrease in the amount of diners coming through our doors in the summer. This is inevitable when the number of Penn State students drops dramatically,” said John Briggs, manager at The Corner Room on West College Avenue.

And it’s not just the customer base. Briggs said the restaurant loses many employees every year due to graduation or because they go home for the summer. Restaurant management hires many people who stay for the summer to “back-fill” the gap, he said.

“The labor issue with students leaving in the summer is particularly challenging for the restaurants, and I think it’s even more challenging now considering the low unemployment rates,” said Downtown State College Improvement District Director Rob Schmidt.

Patrick Daugherty, owner of The Tavern Restaurant, said the toughest part of the summer for businesses like his is the time between Mother’s Day and high school graduations, because many student workers have left or graduated, and fewer tourists and prospective Penn State students come to town to tour campus and dine.

Waitress Navia Prezeau takes a tray of food to a table at The Corner Room on June 7. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“We rely heavily on student workers and we miss the ones that aren’t here,” he said.

But events — both Penn State related and otherwise — that happen throughout the summer usually help The Tavern out with business.

“We just had Penn State’s Alumni Reunion Weekend, this weekend is Father’s Day, there was a conference that helped — International Association of Town and Gown — last weekend there were some sports camps,” Daugherty said.

Getting creative

Salud Juicery on South Fraser Street relies “heavily” on foot traffic, so the lack of Penn State students walking to and from class makes business slower in the summer, manager Nick Bizousky said.

Students make up about half of Salud’s customer base, he said, so the juice and wellness bar is trying to expand its offerings.

“We’re just trying to expand, because it’s easier to do more things when it’s slower,” he said. Salud is now offering quiche, breakfast burritos and other baked goods to attract community members rather than just students.

Schmidt said the DID is working with downtown business to enhance open air and outdoor dining, due to a demand among community members for patios and outdoor seating. He said he’s also trying to get business owners to have bands start playing earlier to cater to non-student crowds.

“Maybe if they started earlier in the evening, you might see more of the locals come downtown to see those bands,” he said.

John Mangan, co-owner of Cafe 210 West, said his restaurant has already started having bands play earlier, and they’re seeing success.

Business, like always, is a bit slower at the beginning and end of the summer, he said, but Cafe’s outdoor patio is attractive to community members looking for outdoor dining on nice days.

Some of the DID’s efforts to move events like Pop Up Ave closer to Cafe’s end of the avenue have helped greatly with foot traffic, he said, along with the changing face of the town.

“(State College) is almost like a tourist town as far as the restaurant business,” he said. “But I’ve noticed over the last 10 years that there’s a large rise in like weddings and reunions and people that specifically come to town on the weekends for when they feel it’s not gonna be busy so they can get into the bars and restaurants, and some of these have become annual events that we plan around.”

Construction and parking

Construction and parking are two of the biggest complaints Briggs said he gets from customers regarding downtown State College.

“The perception seems to be that ‘it’s difficult parking downtown,’ ” he said. “The three garages on Pugh, Fraser and Beaver often have plenty of spots, so I believe it’s a stigma that is hard to shake. In the summer, the accessibility is much greater than perceived, and folks at the (DID), for example, do a great job at trying to entice visitors.”

Webster’s Bookstore & Cafe on Beaver Avenue across the street from construction on Friday, June 7, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Schmidt, at the DID, said the organization is working to promote the many activities that already happen downtown every summer, like First Fridays, Pop Up Ave. and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

“We’re trying to facilitate some more events and activities throughout the summer to really showcase what we have going on downtown,” he said.

At the DID, they haven’t heard many complaints about construction, he said, though some of the construction on Beaver Avenue has caused delivery issues for several businesses.

“Construction’s inevitable,” he said. “I think once these projects are done they’re gonna really improve the look of downtown.”

Daugherty, who also sits on the board of directors for the DID, said the organization has done a lot to minimize the negative effects of construction on business over the years, including moving disruptive work to nights and closing down intersections for 24 hours to fast-track large projects.

The bigger complaint, he said, is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation construction on North Atherton Street, which local business owners and borough officials have no control over. For that construction project, he said, the worst is still yet to come.

“I think it’s had an impact (on business),” he said. “I just hope it hasn’t had a permanent impact.”

The Hotel State College, the parent company of The Corner Room, offers a three-hour garage parking validation if guests spend $15 or more at its affiliated restaurants, in order to attract more people to come downtown, Briggs said. State College also has free street parking until 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

“The fact is that, yes, the students are gone ... but if our businesses are gonna open their doors every day, we want to support them,” Schmidt said.

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.