OSU virtual Commencement has effects on local businesses

By Eli Smart
Simon Date, the CEO and President of the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce outside the Chamber of Commerce building in Corvallis, Ore. Because the 2021 Commencement ceremony will be held virtually, many local businesses are expecting lower revenue than usual during the weekend it is held.

Angela Tam, News Contributor

With Oregon State University’s Commencement being held with virtual and in-person counterparts, the usual traffic that Corvallis, Ore. receives from students’ families and friends in an entirely in-person ceremony will be significantly lowered.

Executive Director of Visit Corvallis Christina Rehklau said via email that any OSU major event such as Commencement week, a football game or family weekend typically generates millions of dollars for the community.

“At Visit Corvallis, we conservatively estimate that Commencement week generates over $2 million dollars of economic impact for the community,” Rehklau said.

Rehklau said many businesses, such as lodging, restaurants and retailers have also had a generally difficult year due to health restrictions on capacity indoors with COVID-19.

Two lodging properties closed down in March of 2020 and remained closed until August.

Furthermore, at the start of the pandemic, fewer OSU students in town led to more difficulties on top of restrictions and changing health guidelines.

“It’s hard for a restaurant to purchase food, bring staff back on within 48 hours or use up extra food that was purchased if they need to go to a lower capacity without wasting it,” Rehklau said.

Heidi Lewis, creative operations director of human resources for both Sky High Brewing and American Dream Pizza, provides an insider perspective on restaurant success and downfalls during the pandemic. She has been employed by both companies for three years as the HR director, but worked previously as a consultant with both companies since 2012.

Last year, in-person Commencement was also canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lewis said that business was down during that time, estimated at 50% of what it normally had been outside of the pandemic.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Lewis said that both restaurants—like others—are only allowed to seat up to 50% capacity, due to Corvallis’ low-risk categorization. As such, the restaurants do not plan on doing any special outreach for the Commencement week as they will likely be at their capacity during the week.

“It’s a balance act,” Lewis said. “We don’t want to over-promote and then have guests be disappointed by having to wait too long to get in.”

Simon Date, president of the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce said that in a typical year outside of COVID-19, Commencement week would increase traffic by a couple thousand families. But due to current circumstanc- es, he said it is difficult to gauge how many families will come into Corvallis this year.

However, the community has also been supportive of small local businesses dur- ing this time. For instance, the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition ran the “It’s On Us Corvallis” program that raised over $200,000 for restaurants to provide free meals throughout the pandemic.

“We are starting to see less of [these programs] now,” said Date. “But they are still very much available.”

Rehklau said the outdoor dining program that was spearheaded by the Corvallis Benton County Economic Development Office, Downtown Corvallis Association and Corvallis Chamber of Commerce has been a huge help to local restaurants.

Gyms have also been able to make use of parking spaces in the downtown area for workouts.

Regional Economist Patrick O’Connor said via email that loans from the Paycheck Protection Program have been the most visible resource to assist small companies, but that program is intended for businesses more generally impacted by COVID-19, rather than seasonal drops.

Overall, Benton County typically shows some slight job loss during the summer in leisure and hospitality, typically around 150 jobs, according to O’Connor.

“This has been such an unusual year, in particular with students at OSU, it is tough to say if we will see the normal seasonal employment declines during the summer for Benton County,” O’Connor said.

After Commencement week, Rehklau said that the summer vacation months mean long and slow recovery for the local economy.

For instance, in July, OSU had several large in-person conferences scheduled, and not being able to have in-person conferences this summer will greatly impact the local lodging industry.

On May 11, Governor Kate Brown stated that when 70% of eligible Oregonians receive the vaccine, she will lift most COVID-19 restrictions on businesses.

As of June 5, 46.6% of the Oregon population has received one dose of the vaccine and 46.6% of the population is fully vaccinated. It’s not certain when Oregon will reach the 70% requirement.

Still, Rehklau said Visit Corvallis is pleased to see the possibility of these new guidelines and what they can mean for the local economy working its way back to stability.

“We are very proud that our community leads the state in the percentage of the population vaccinated,” Rehklau said. “We are hopeful Benton County will be given the green light by the Governor to start easing restrictions and that will be a big boost for the local businesses.”

In regards to Commencement week being held virtually, Date said he is not overly worried about its effects on local businesses.

“It’s not positive business all the time, but it is business as usual,” Date said. “I don’t think having Commencement virtually this particular year is going to have a significant effect, just because we’re not expecting a lot of folks.”

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