Summertime slowdown

Tess Wolfe

When students leave Kent, local businesses feel the pinch

Justin Clemens, co-owner of 101 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, restocks shelves with beer inside the Kent alcohol retailer. CAITLIN PRARAT | SUMMER KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

There’s a boom and bust aspect to owning a small business in a college town, and owners of several independent businesses in downtown Kent feel the lull during the summer months.

Because of the mass student exodus in May, local businesses must adjust to the decrease in customers each summer. On average, more than 11,000 undergraduate students leave each summer, according to university records.

“We’re not solely reliant on the university, but you can’t help but have half of your business come from it,” said Mary Friess, owner of WordSmiths on state Route 59. “I’ve seen (local businesses) fail because of the summer. They have a really hard time. Over the years, I’ve learned what I can and can’t do.”

Friess, who has a background in accounting, has owned WordSmiths for 11 years. She said summer can be a stagnant period.

“It’s something you have to be savvy about and put money aside,” she said. “You have to figure, ‘What am I going to need to cover payroll? What am I going to need to cover rent?'”

Mike Weddle, economic development coordinator, said the city keeps an annual record of business openings and closings but does not break the information down by month or season.

“We’re obviously going to feel (the summer lag) more than Stow or Tallmadge or Hudson,” he said. “Their economies should be relatively smooth.”

Going with the ebb and flow

Once, Justin Clemens and Jamie Thorrat at one point had three businesses operating concurrently in Kent.

Clemens said they entered the local business scene in 1992 when they opened Video 101. Within four years, they opened two more businesses, 101 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and Laundry 101. They closed the video store five years ago and expanded 101 Bottles into the space the store had occupied.

“We always consider ourselves pretty clever,” he said. “But there’s only so much you can do when you have 25,000 college kids that are gone and you’re left with a town of 20,000.”

Nationwide, alcohol sales increase in summer months – but not in a college town, he said.

“I would always kind of joke that if stores have a gas tank, you need to leave the tank very full going into summer, and by the time August rolls around, you’re usually on fumes trying to get to the rest stop,” Clemens said.

He and Thorrat estimate that business at their laundry store drops between 20 and 25 percent during the summer. Clemens said their laundry business is less affected seasonally than their alcohol sales because many of the people using the laundry store are year-round residents.

At 101 Bottles, sales drop by 30 to 35 percent, Clemens said.

“Which, considering the population just fell in half, could be a lot worse,” he said. “You really make money eight to nine months out of the year.”

Last summer was their best by far in terms of sales, he said.

Balancing act

Charlie Thomas, who has owned Ray’s Place for 29 years, said his business last summer also fared better than in the previous five years. The high price of gas may have been part of the reason, he said.

“We think it was contributed to by the fact that people were not traveling as much,” Thomas said. “In the summertime, it’s nicer. They tend to go to Cleveland or Akron. So we thought maybe they were staying around instead of paying higher prices.”

Thomas said his business feels the hit when students leave for the summer.

“It impacts everybody around Kent,” he said. “I don’t care what business you’re in.”

Thomas adjusts to the drop in demand by cutting his labor and decreasing advertisement costs. But he said some operating costs are fixed and cannot be adjusted.

“This place has been here since 1937, so it’s a long-term place,” he said.

Building resilience

Rillis Moneypenney, co-owner of Moneypenney Realty and Management, has been a real estate agent in Kent for 27 years. He said although more than half his business comes from student rentals, he is not impacted when the students leave for summer. He tries to have his rentals leased for the next school year before the students leave town.

“All of our student leases run through July 31, and we’ve assigned three different start dates in August to get the apartments ready (for the next tenants),” he said.

The Kent Area Chamber of Commerce works with area leaders to create alternative economic input for the more than 150 downtown businesses and organizations during summer months through specialty events and festivals, executive director Dan Smith said.

“We try to tap into the summer tourists,” Smith said. “Geauga Lake brings a lot of people to town.”

But downtown business owners are happy when students come back in the fall.

“Things are not nearly as brisk when they (students) are out of town,” Smith said.

Contact general assignment reporter Tess Wolfe at [email protected].