Colleges are back for the fall semester in New Mexico and across the country, but in 2020, that still doesn’t mean that the businesses that rely on them are out of the woods.
University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and other schools around the state began their fall semesters with a mix of on-campus students and distanced learning as a precaution to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At NMSU, the state’s second-largest university, just 9% of the students at the main campus in Las Cruces are taking fully face-to-face classes this fall, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported. Christopher Erickson, interim department head for NMSU’s Economics, Applied Statistics & International Business Department, said revenue for the school could decline by $10 million without students in classrooms.
However, the greatest pain could be felt by the ecosystem of bars, restaurants and coffee shops that rely on college students and employees to stay afloat during the fall and spring months.
“That lack of students in town continues to suppress restaurants and retail generally in Las Cruces,” Erickson said.
In the neighborhoods surrounding some of New Mexico’s largest colleges, businesses that rely on students are trying to make do without.
Las Cruces, where NMSU is the largest single employer and the second-largest source of jobs behind White Sands Missile Range, has seen some of the most significant impacts.
Bosque Brewing Co. maintains six breweries, taprooms and other facilities around the state, but Jess Griego, chief experience officer for Bosque, said no location has been hit harder than the public house a block north of the college campus.
Griego told the Journal that sales are down 60% to 70% compared to a typical September.
“We’re trying our best, it’s just been difficult,” Griego told the Journal.
Griego said the NMSU public house, at 901 E. University Ave., relies heavily on traffic from NMSU students. Even in normal years, the taproom typically empties out when the summer begins, Griego said. Due to the cancellation of classes in the spring, that downturn came earlier than expected this year.
Griego said state indoor dining restrictions made things even more challenging over the summer, as the Las Cruces summer heat made it hard to operate with just a patio. And without students, fall hasn’t brought much relief.
“We’re just not seeing the same traffic we normally do,” Griego said.
In response, Bosque has nixed its food menu and cut hours nearly in half at the Las Cruces public house.
Asked if Bosque had considered closing its NMSU-adjacent location, Griego said that would be the “worst-case scenario” and the company hadn’t yet reached that point. She said she was hopeful that cooler weather would bring more people to the Las Cruces patio.
On the other side of Espina Street, Marci Dickerson, owner of The Game, doesn’t consider her sports bar a true college bar, but said the loss of students and faculty has hurt all the same.
Dickerson said sales are down by about a quarter compared to last year across The Game’s two Las Cruces locations. However, Dickerson said declines were worse at the one across from NMSU, at 2605 S. Espina St.
Dickerson said college students constitute around 30% of the customer base at the bar, and is popular among employees and professors as well.
“As distanced learning and all that happens, a lot of those professors are choosing to stay home and teach,” Dickerson said.
The bar expanded its patios when indoor dining was banned, but Dickerson said business hasn’t returned to normal.
“We’ve done what we can on that,” Dickerson said. “It really just comes down to getting people in the doors.”
New Mexico’s smaller college towns are feeling the heat as well, and Socorro, home of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, certainly qualifies.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker said the city is faring well overall, with gross receipts taxes above where they typically are earlier in the summer due to fewer residents leaving to shop in Belen and Los Lunas during the pandemic.
However, Bhasker acknowledged the loss of students could hurt the town in the long run.
“There’s no question that the students are a big part of the economy,” Bhasker said.
Bhasker said about one-third of students enrolled at New Mexico Tech are actually on campus. In a city with about 9,000 residents, the shortage of students looms large at stores like Ace Hardware and John Brooks Super Mart that rely on a flow of students and parents. Bhasker estimated that the university comprises as much as 40% of the city’s overall payroll and property tax base.
“We’re a poor town to begin with,” Bhasker said.
On the stretch of Central Avenue across from UNM, even Albuquerque favorites aren’t immune from the impact of fewer students.
In better times, Frontier was a magnet for UNM students and professors as well as locals, according to co-owner Dorothy Rainosek. With far fewer students and teachers on campus in 2020, Rainosek said business is barely half of what it would normally be with the semester underway. Sales over Labor Day weekend, typically a busy time for the restaurant, were 40% lower than normal.
“It almost looks deserted on campus,” Rainosek said. “It’s not like it was before.”
Frontier has been an Albuquerque staple for almost 50 years, but even old dogs have to learn new tricks during a pandemic. The restaurant put up plastic dividers between booths and instituted other safety measures, but Rainosek said indoor dining restrictions and fear of the virus have led to more business outside the restaurant. Frontier has installed one walk-up window and is working on another, in an effort to change with the new restrictions.
“We’re really trying to be more to-go friendly,” Rainosek said.
Even with the downturn, Rainosek said the restaurant is in it for the long haul, and not considering closing.
“We’ve been here almost 50 years, and it wouldn’t be right,” she said.
Stephen Hamway covers economic development, healthcare and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.