Jacksonville city Administrator Albertha Grant is worried for the city’s economy if COVID-19 disrupts its No. 1 industry: educating college students.
Jacksonville State University’s roughly 9,000 students dine in restaurants and shop at grocery stores throughout the town, and the city of Jacksonville receives five cents in sales tax revenue for every dollar spent on tacos, ramen noodles and video games. That revenue helps to pave streets, operate parks and run the police and fire departments.
Students also rent apartments and homes throughout the city, providing property owners with money that flows through the local economy.
“They make a huge difference when they’re here in the area versus when they’re not,” Grant said.
The university currently plans to resume on-campus instruction for the fall semester on Aug. 18, however, some universities around the country have announced that courses will be conducted fully online, with many offering a mix of in-person and remote instruction.
“Whatever the decision is, the city will just have to live with it,” Grant said. “There’s no other way of dealing with it.”
Sales tax revenue in Jacksonville often declines when the university transitions to the summer semester and the lower summer numbers they often see will continue into the fall if the university decides to hold all classes online, Grant said.
In May 2019, when JSU commencement ceremonies were held, the city collected $849,296 in sales taxes. The next two months, with many students moving back home for the summer, monthly sales tax revenue fell by about 30 percent. The revenue rebounded to $769,480 in August 2019, when JSU classes commenced.
Apart from students themselves, campus events that draw thousands of visitors help to drive spending in Jacksonville. If the university does not proceed with a normal sports schedule, Grant said, the city would also be affected.
“When they’re here, people are coming into the city and the restaurants are getting business,” she said.
Grant explained that the college sponsors several cultural events at JSU, and that “if they’re not there, all of those things change.”
Much of Jacksonville's housing is occupied by college students, and property owners rely on them for income. The property rental business is seasonal, with students moving in and out as semesters begin and end.
Bryan Taylor, the owner of Taylor Real Estate Solutions, said that his company always sees a large turnover of tenants during the months of May, June and July after the spring semester ends.
“This spring was no different,” Taylor said. “Initially we were very concerned but we never slowed down. Students continued to lease our properties and our occupancy percentage this summer was probably the highest it has ever been.”
The rental agency has not experienced a decline due to COVID-19, Taylor said, and since May, the company leased between 60 to 75 properties for the summer and fall. He explained that the company is still seeing students coming in and expecting to attend classes.
“Not all of these are college students but the majority are students,” he said.
Taylor said that college students are “essential” for his investors and owners.
“Honestly without the students my business would not be as successful as it is,” he said. “However, the way I see it, the campus and the city are equally important and must co-exist and move forward united.”
Restaurant owners, too, rely on JSU students to help make their businesses work, and their industry has become overshadowed by uncertainty since the arrival of COVID-19 forced many eateries to shut down or make adjustments to their service.
Tim Johnson, the owner of Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack, said that business has been “hit and miss” during the summer.
“We’ve got good weeks and we’ve got slow weeks,” Johnson said.
He explained that the restaurant has seen a “little bit of a decrease” since classes ended in spring, but it hasn’t been huge because the restaurant isn’t necessarily a “student hangout.”
“I’m more worried about finding employees,” he said. “We get a lot of employees from school. Not so much our customer base, but we do get quite a few employees from there.”
Christian Lopez, who recently took over ownership of Loco Mex, said business has been “OK” and that he doesn’t know what to expect going into the fall.
“I honestly think a lot of the kids will be back, but there will be a good percentage that doesn’t,” Lopez said. “Honestly, I’m just kinda hoping for the best.”