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Uptown Businesses To Lose Out With ISU Students Gone

Women eat at JJ's
Patrons eat at Jimmy John's in Uptown Normal.

The coronavirus is about the exact an economic cost on the many businesses and workers who rely on consumer spending from Illinois State University students.

Spending by ISU, its employees, and its students directly contributes more than $550 million to the McLean County economy annually, according to a 2016 study. That spending also returns more than $18 million in tax revenues to the area.

That impact will shrink considerably in the next month. ISU has closed its dorms, extended spring break by one week, and switched to online-only classes through at least April 12. That means fewer students will be spending money at stores, restaurants, and even auto repair shops in Bloomington-Normal.

“It’s going to be significant,” said Frank Beck from ISU’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development and one of the 2016 study’s co-authors.

"No amount of money is more important than public health."

The Rock restaurant in Uptown Normal is expecting a loss of business, especially at night when students often come in after classes, said owner Said Saliba.

But Saliba said public health is rightfully the priority.

“It’s not about me or my business at the moment. It’s about the safety of everybody,” Saliba said. “I probably will lose some business. But this is secondary at the moment. This (coronavirus) is not a joke.”

People need to be careful and listen to recommendations from public health officials, Saliba said.

“It’s OK if our business is down a little bit. It’s not only us. It’s everybody,” he said. “I believe that we’re going to bounce back and we’re going to bounce back big, when this whole coronavirus disappears.”

At Pub II in Uptown, manager Luke Rokos said he doesn’t know what to expect next week when students were initially supposed to be back on campus after spring break.

Some of his student employees will now not be returning until mid-April. That means he won’t be able to fully staff the beer garden he wants to open next week. It will be limited service only.

Rokos is also going to be limiting the capacity inside Pub II, in a nod to the social-distancing guidance that public health officials have preached.

One crowd that won’t be showing up is March Madness fans. The NCAA has canceled the annual basketball tournament that brought in many customers to Pub II.

“We’d have people claiming tables before we opened. And I’m disappointed that we won’t have that revenue coming in. But no amount of money is more important than public health,” Rokos said.

The business slowdown is likely to have an effect on tax revenue for local governments. The 2016 study found that ISU returned $16 million in property tax revenue and $2.6 million in sales tax revenue to the local economy. 

“They may or may not be buying a car here. But if they’re here, they’re likely shopping at local grocers or area restaurants. So yes, sales tax might take a hit,” Beck said. “We won’t know how that plays out right away. That’s going to take some time.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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