Apr 13, 2010

Life, Liberty & Lynchburg: Local businesses depend on college students to stay afloat

by Melinda Zosh

“When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.”

The Beatles coined these words in 1970—marking an end to a decade-long love affair the world shared with four men from England, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.

Forty-years after the Beatles made their last album, their faces, and the three famous words “Let it be” hang behind a counter at hippie-style coffee-shop in Lynchburg, Va., known to customers as the Drowsy Poet.

Posters of Bob Marley and Janis Joplin overlook the coffee counter, and customers are greeted by a large image of rock star giants The Who when picking up the shop’s most famous drink, the Milton—a coffee and ice-cream mixture with a shot of espresso.

Roy Ellis, known to locals as “Smiley” greets Liberty students with his unmistakable Jamaican accent.

“All Liberty students know Smiley,” Student Government Association President Matt Mihelic jokes as he greets the manager of this hole-in-the-wall coffee shop.

And Ellis knows many local college students. They bring in a large percentage of his business during the school months, he said.

“If colleges (in Lynchburg) closed down, all businesses would automatically close,” Ellis said. “Without college, there is no business.”

During school months, Ellis typically sees a 35 to 40 percent spike in business, but despite this increase, he is still struggling to pay the bills for his shop. He has seen a 30 percent drop in sales since last year, he said.

“I get more students than I used to get, but I make less money,” Ellis said. “A lot of kids who used to work have no jobs.”

Due to the economy, students now share drinks, such as the Milton, instead of buying their own. Ellis offers lower prices than competitors, because his customers, mainly Liberty students, cannot afford pricey items.

“My prices are nearly the lowest in town, because of the clientele I have,” Ellis said. “People might see tons of customers come in here, but they forget we only have little drinks which cannot pay the bills at the end of the month.”

Running the business costs Ellis $9,000 per month. He needs to make $300 per day during the week days and approximately $900 on weekends to break even. He has even had to use money out of his own pocket to cover expenses.

“Rent over here is killing us,” Ellis said. “The economy has hurt us.”

Many college students leave the Drowsy Poet and shop at nearby Rugged Wearhouse, a discount clothing store. Rugged Wearhouse Manager Jeremy Friedley said the proximity of Liberty University has helped his business. It also helps that Lynchburg’s 4F bus drops shoppers off in front of his store, he said.

“College students love fashion, and I have got some great deals for them,” Friedley said. “I love college students. They can keep coming.”

College students contribute to 25 percent of his business, according to Friedley. He hopes Liberty’s financial investment in the community will also boost his sales.
“Liberty just bought the plaza so that plays a huge role (in my business),” Friedley said. “I have a feeling that a lot of parents and kids are saying ‘let’s support the school.’”

Friedley also sets lower prices for his buyers—mostly Liberty students—than his competitors. His clothes from Express, popular with male shoppers, usually sell out within days. Timberland boots are also popular.

“If you like the service we are providing, you are going to keep coming back,” Friedley said.

Long-term investments, including college students, make or break a business, Friedley said.

“You grow or kill a business based on long-term investment,” Friedley said, adding that his business is on a lease. “Otherwise (the business) closes its doors and goes away.”

While some businesses may be shutting down, others are welcoming their customers — Lynchburg college students. Five colleges including Liberty, Lynchburg College, Randolph College, Virginia University of Lynchburg and Central Virginia Community College (CVCC) combined draw 20,000 people to the city, according to President and CEO of Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce Rex Hammond.

“If you go to any restaurant in Lynchburg, you are going to find Liberty or Lynchburg College students,” Hammond said.
Other than restaurants, students also purchase clothing and books and pay for rent and taxes, according to Hammond.
“College students have the same consumer bills that any of us do,” Hammond said.

The owners of Sundae Grill built their restaurant specifically for Liberty students, according to waitress Shanna Kormanik.
“The owners wanted to be close to campus for students who do not have cars,” Kormanik said.

The restaurant resembles a 1950s-style malt shop. The owners bought the pastel-colored booths from singer Celine Dion, according to Kormanik. But the Sundae Grill management wanted to offer students more than an aesthetic setting. They wanted to save them money. The restaurant offers a 10 percent discount to students with college identifications, and it offers 50 percent off food during breaks.

“It makes it easier on their wallets,” Kormanik said. “They come in for a good environment that is fun and relaxed.”

The owners close the Sundae Grill for Christmas break every year, because they lose the majority of their customers, according to Kormanik.

Located on Wards Road, many students shop at the River Ridge Mall, according to General Manager Sandi Rogness.
“Liberty is probably the most seen at the mall, but that could be due to the location of the university or the number of students attending that school,” Rogness said.

Wards Road businesses benefit from Liberty students’ purchases, Hammond said.

“It is not a coincidence that Wards Road has built up as the economic corridor in Lynchburg,” Hammond said. “It’s adjacency to Liberty is a large contributing factor.”

Closer to Wal-Mart on Wards Road, a little sub shop Firehouse Subs is frequented by Liberty students, according to second shift staff leader Victoria Cahoon.

“We have the worse business during spring, Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks,” Cahoon said. “We just cut down on labor. We do not have as many people work as usual.”

Eight Liberty students, including Cahoon work at Firehouse Subs. Its management realized that College for a Weekend and other Liberty events bring in more business.

College students in Lynchburg contribute to local businesses, and most would not thrive without their investments, according to Kormanik.

“Business is dead when students leave town,” Kormanik said. “The locals will come in, but a majority of our business comes from students. We are almost dependent on students.”

Contact Melinda Zosh at
mzosh@liberty.edu.


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