Streets packed with trucks overflowing with furniture and SUVs towing rented trailers herald the return of students to Pullman ahead of the start of the fall 2021 semester.
The occasion also beckons back legions of WSU faculty and staff, who will be joined frequently in the months to come by thousands of visitors. Some for football weekends, others for events like the Familiy Weekends or Homecoming.
For local business, the return of much of the WSU community represents a light at the end of a long and difficult year-and-a-half spent struggling to stay afloat.
“I’m feeling incredibly excited,” said Judy Kolde, owner of Sanctuary Yoga, Barre & Dance. “In the interactions I’ve had with the people I advise, they are also eager to come back and have the full college experience.”
For Pullman, the arrival of some 20,000 students for the fall semester represents a doubling of the city’s population. During the 2018-2019 fiscal year, students contributed $48.5 million in spending within the regional economy, according to a recent report. Much of that spending didn’t happen locally last year, with a majority of students living at home and attending WSU remotely. This fall, with students back in-person, local businesses are hoping for a return to pre-pandemic conditions.
Kolde is one of many local business owners who partner with WSU Pullman who’ve made it through the pandemic thanks to community support and an ability to shift priorities. In addition to renting space with Daggy Hall, Kolde serves on the Board of Advisors for the Carson College of Business and as the advisory chair for the Delta Gamma Sorority.
“Covid helped us band together and the people that remained standing at the end of it all are exceptional at what they do, they are resourceful, and have been able to pivot,” Kolde said.
A combination of strong support among her yoga, barre and dance clients and bolstering Sanctuary’s smoothie shop kept her going during the height of the pandemic.
Many local restaurants got by in the midst of the pandemic by building out more robust takeout and delivery options or selling gift cards. Orin Ford, owner of O-Ramen, highlighted the Community Action Center’s Pullman Serves It Forward campaign, which has raised more than $70,000 to support local restaurants while enabling families in need to put meals on their tables.
His restaurant was open for just a year before COVID-19 restrictions caused him to reduce operations to five days and transition to delivery exclusively.
“I worked open to close with one other employee doing delivery only after restrictions went into place and that’s how it went for the first few months,” Ford recalled.
Thankfully, federal, state and local grants helped mitigate business losses. Ford also gained the ability to sell alcohol off premises, allowing customers to stop by to buy bottles of sake. While recent news about COVID-19 variants has him feeling anxious, being able to run the restaurant at full capacity and seeing the level of energy that brings to the restaurant has Ford feeling optimistic. The return of students and the resumption of large-scale events also has promise.
“Those weekends were really great for us during our first year, when — even if a game was at an awkward time — we’d still have good days before and afterward. A big university bringing more people into town is huge for all the local businesses.”
Return of in-person events
Now that WSU is looking ahead to an in-person fall semester, Kolde is hoping to renew conversations around how to make downtown Pullman as attractive to residents and visitors as possible. Bringing a Ferdinand’s location downtown is among her ideas.
The university has announced several high-profile partnerships with local businesses in recent years. Corporate Pointe Developers LLC, headed by WSU alum Duane Brelsford, is building the first privately developed student housing project on the Pullman campus. The Palouse Ridge Golf Club restaurant, Round Top Public House, is operated by Jim Harbour, who owns South Fork Public House as well as Porch Light Pizza. Most recently, Cougar County Drive-In was announced as the newest tenant inside the Compton Union Building.
Re-building businesses to pre-pandemic levels will be a process, said Marie Dymkoski, executive director of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce.
“Pullman has always been known for exceptional customer service and being welcoming to WSU faculty, staff, students and visitors, so while there are challenges, we’re moving in the right direction,” Dymkoski said ”
There’s also anticipation building around the creation of a downtown master plan and the work being done by the Downtown Pullman Association. Dymkoski credits a productive relationship with WSU and in particular President Kirk Schulz with helping to move plans forward.
She added, “I can’t thank WSU and the Office of the President enough for the resources they have lent us, especially in last year and half. Having WSU’s team in our corner the whole time, has been tremendous.”