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Evanston businesses face hardships without football but vow to push on

Northwestern’s home may not be a traditional college town, but several establishments rely on traffic generated by football games.

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In early August, the Big Ten’s postponement of fall sports capped the end of a months-long wait to the seemingly inevitable conclusion depriving players, coaches and fans of a football season for at least a few months. The conference’s rationale for the decision, which was communicated poorly at best, drew swift and intense backlash, petitions and lawsuits from angry players, parents and even politicians.

While the renewed talks to play football this fall gives some hope to disheartened observers, Evanston businesses are simultaneously in the process of overcoming an economic crisis in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenge furthered without football. Without tens of thousands of fans flocking to Evanston seven times this fall, the local economy is set to take another hit.

According to Roger Sosa of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, the businesses along Central Street near Ryan Field will feel the greatest effect of the fall postponement. However, a football-less fall “definitely ripples through the whole community.”

David Haghnaji, owner of apparel shop The Locker Room, located directly across from Ryan Field on Central Street, estimates game days account for 90 percent of the store’s business.

“We wait the entire year for the seven games that are going to be played at Ryan Field,” he said. “Without games, those stores don’t mean anything.”

Even if Northwestern were to play this fall, current Illinois coronavirus guidelines allow for only 20 percent capacity at Ryan Field, depriving businesses like D&D Finer Foods and D&D Dogs of the influx of students, alumni and visiting fans from entering the restaurant and grocery store ahead of games.

“Early games, all you guys grab your breakfast sandwiches, grab your stuff in the restaurant. We have a morning rush then after the games. My restaurant will take the biggest brunt,” D&D’s owner Kosta Douvikas said.

Local favorite Bat 17 also derives much of its revenue from the ability to function under normal circumstances. Floor manager Mike Gerlach said days of home football games generate two to two-and-a-half times as much business compared to a normal day.

However, with an outdoor patio and a strict compliance with the state’s coronavirus restaurant guidelines, which allow bars and restaurants to operate at a reduced capacity, Gerlach said Bat 17 planned to continue business during the Big Ten’s conference-only schedule and expected strong demand with fewer people allowed at the Ryan Field.

“We were looking forward to however we could hit that [20 percent] threshold, and it would’ve been easy to hit it,” said Gerlach. “We were prepared for it to be less than last year, but we were excited for the business it could bring.”

However, any opportunity to attract customers was, of course, snuffed out by the Big Ten’s postponement of the season. The lack of football underscores the importance of students to the well-being of the city’s businesses. Douvikas said his Noyes Street business relies on the presence of Northwestern students throughout the year. The university recently dealt him a blow with its decision to prevent the vast majority of first- and second-year students from returning to campus. Nonetheless, the lack of football in the fall will disrupt the game day rush of fans buying food and drink from his business.

“Evanston depends on what Northwestern does,” Douvikas said. The city of Evanston is grateful and indebted to Northwestern and the students who come here and the business it brings.”

Campus Gear, famous for its eccentric collection of hats, is less reliant than its sister store The Locker Room on game day traffic. While game days account for around 20 or 30 percent of Campus Gear’s business, Haghnaji said events with football games as centerpieces, like homecoming or parents weekend, draw tons of business.

In tandem with the students of Northwestern is the attraction of Big Ten football. Sosa said home football games at Ryan Field (capacity 47,130) bring around 40,000 people to the Evanston area. And while there are plenty of people in purple, Evanston business are quick to note their appreciation for the droves of visiting fans who are a boon for stores, bars and restaurants.

“They come in the night before and are knocking on my door at 7:30 in the morning to come in and get stuff,” Douvikas said of the hungry visitors.

Sosa couldn’t provide an estimate of how much money Northwestern football generates for local economy but said a comparable study on the city’s theatre patrons found an average spending of $30 per person.

While Evanston’s businesses will take a sizable hit this fall, the city’s losses may pale in comparison to other Big Ten college towns, which rely on football season to support their local economies, underscoring the desperation of politicians and athletic departments to play a season with fans in the stands. The University of Iowa proposed a plan to allow spectators into Kinnick Stadium at a roughly 20 percent capacity. Hawkeye football generates about $100 million a season for the Iowa City area per year.

A 2009 study found that State College, Pennsylvania, visitors staying in hotels and spending money at local businesses is a major boon for the region.

Evanston’s diverse economic base, a result of its theaters, restaurants and other attractions, differentiates it from other college towns, which may help to soften the blow. But Sosa said 20 to 30 small businesses have closed as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s not going to kill us, but it is going to hurt us,” Sosa said.

Nonetheless, a sense of resilience persists as Evanston businesses seek to see the pandemic through.

“Up and down from Dave’s [New Kitchen] to Stacked and Folded, we’re all trying to do whatever we can to get people to Noyes Street,” Douvikas said, adding his commitment to ensuring D&D remains a safe and comfortable place for customers.

Haghnaji and Gerlach both sounded hopeful for a rebound next year, with the former saying next fall could produce record numbers and the latter noting the positive reaction Bat 17 has received since opening up its patio.

“Somehow we have to be able to get through this,” Haghnaji said. “I am hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel.”