Little victories help Matt Gladdek get through the day.

On a recent afternoon, he stopped at Chapel Hill institution Four Corners for lunch and asked if the new deck in front of the restaurant was attracting customers. As executive director of Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, an economic development nonprofit, he’d overseen the sidewalk expansion program that made it possible.

It was, he says, a little victory.

Before lunch, he swung by Imbibe, the Cajun kitchen around the corner. He wanted to speak to Mandey Brown, the owner and chef, about the new takeout-only parking spot in front of the business. As they spoke, a couple parked and picked up its takeout order.

Another little victory.

Before Brown, he’d checked in on Paula Gilland, CEO of Purple Bowl—known for its açai bowls and smoothies—and another business owner before that, and so on.

For Gladdek, these conversations have defined the past six months of his life. The little victories are the result of constant planning and strategic meetings to help businesses stay afloat.

Despite his organization’s efforts, a long list of downtown Chapel Hill businesses, once packed with students and football fans, have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic.

“While it’s been hard for me, I know it’s worse for all those who have put their blood, sweat, and tears … in their family businesses—that are doing everything they can to stay afloat,” he says.

Chapel Hill is not alone in this crisis. Businesses in college towns such as Ann Arbor, Michigan; Athens, Georgia; and Bloomington, Indiana have all seen dramatic decreases in revenue as universities have moved online.

Now the town is trying to look ahead—past the little victories and toward a long-term post-pandemic economic recovery. However, being built around a university—the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which moved fully online after COVID-19 cases exploded in student residence halls and fraternities this semester—complicates the town’s plans.

Unlike large cities or other small towns, college towns have to strike a balance between maintaining strong ties to universities while developing a local economy that won’t collapse if schools shut down.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger knows how fragile this balance can be.

“I’ve had several discussions with other mayors talking about the same thing … talking about the effects when [the university] is your major employer downtown,” she says. “It’s just devastating right now.”

Hemminger’s long-term recovery strategy is the same one she’s followed to boost the town’s economy since she came into office five years ago: Focus on building commercial spaces and a strong private business scene—not one dependent on public institutions.

She says the town’s four top employers are UNC, UNC Hospitals, the public school system, and the local government.

“That’s not healthy for any community; you need to have other businesses, other large employers,” she says.

The strategy requires getting out of what Gladdek calls a “nine-month economy,” and  making sure “we’re in a 12-month economy.”

Dwight Bassett, economic development officer for Chapel Hill, says business growth has been the town’s focus for the past 13 years.

“If you grow up in Chapel Hill, and you have a child that graduates from the university, there’s a limited opportunity for them to even think about staying in Chapel Hill, because there aren’t tremendous job opportunities,” he says. “Our goal is to change that.”

Hemminger says the town is working on the construction of a new parking deck downtown, along with an office building that could bring up to 800 jobs to the area.

She says Chapel Hill has also developed a series of incentive packages designed to attract businesses like grocery chain Wegmans and Well, a health technology start-up.

For the college-town businesses that have remained open during the pandemic, Gladdek says the strategy has been to establish deep ties with the local community—not just students.

Nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, Boone is a lot like Chapel Hill; its top employers are Appalachian State University, a regional medical center, and its public school system. However, Town Manager John Ward says Boone’s economy has remained stable through the pandemic.

“I’ve got reduced capacity in our dining establishments, but I don’t have closed businesses due to COVID-19,” Ward says.

It may help that App State is still offering in-person classes. As of October 28, the university has just 21 active cases of COVID-19, though at least 1,000 students have tested positive cumulatively, and one student died of complications from the virus, according to university officials.

But Ward says that even if the university shut down, Boone’s economy wouldn’t collapse. Tourists will play an important role in keeping the economy afloat in the months to come.

“One of the things that we’re seeing is that our outdoor recreation providers, whether that be rafting, mountain biking, canoeing, or hiking, are helping buffer some of our other tourism numbers, like people coming up for festivals and major events,” he says.

Ward says cabin rentals this year have already exceeded last year’s, a trend he attributes to families working or learning remotely.

According to Emil Malizia, a research professor at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, a college town’s location—such as Boone’s isolated spot in the mountains—will play a big role in attracting new businesses after the pandemic.

Malizia said that “anchor institutions” like universities, though, will always be the main driver of a college town’s economy.

“Whatever else we can do, we’re kind of playing around on the edges,” he says. “I mean, if there’s a major reduction in force at the university, or at the hospital—which is possible, hopefully won’t happen—there’s not much we can do.”

Whatever recovery strategy college towns choose to implement, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic is the biggest concern.

Gladdek says it feels “as if the rug keeps on getting pulled out from under you.”

“Right now, you’re predicting how to get through it,” Hemminger says. “And then, how do you recover out of it?”

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