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The Battle for Blacksburg: Local Businesses and the Town Government

By Grant Mitchell | March 28
Covid lyric theatre
Photo: Ethan Candelario

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on Tuesday, March 23rd that, amongst other changes in protocols, indoor and outdoor capacity restrictions have been eased statewide.

“With increased vaccination capacity and our health metrics continuing to trend the right direction, we can safely take these targeted steps to ease certain mitigation measures,” stated Northam.

Governor Northam announcing new capacity restrictions in Virginia (photo via WSET).

Although the cut-off volume of 30% has not wavered, part of the new regulations increases the maximum allowance for indoor entertainment venues from 250 to 500, while outdoor facilities have been designated to operate without a hard cap, so long as that number too does not exceed 30%; social gatherings have also been expanded, allowing for 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors.

However, the town of Blacksburg has since overridden this decision, invoking “Amended Emergency Ordinance 1956” due to select factors.

“The limit on gatherings (50 persons) remains in place due to Blacksburg’s unique circumstances as a college town and the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the student population,” said the town Government in a press release. “Indoor occupancy at food establishments, micro-producers, and small breweries must not be more than 50 percent of the lowest occupancy load… [or] more than 50 persons.”

Although not officially designated as a reason, this regulation comes less than a week after a photo portraying a horde of college-aged students publicly socializing began to circulate social media.

The town government also noted that the imposed 50-person restriction will not apply to outdoor events sponsored by Virginia Tech— however, this claim was contradicted in a Friday, March 26th morning announcement from the Hokies’ football team that stated “Tech is disappointed a traditional spring [football] game weekend is not possible due to current local guidelines.”

This complicates matters further, as the town cited the student population as the preeminent spreaders of the virus: yet there seems to be a clear miscommunication regarding who holds the authority over the younger population. Either that, or neither side is willing to handle the turmoil that comes with imposing restrictions harsher than advised by state health officials.

To make the ordeal even more complex, members of the downtown Blacksburg community are already under an increased financial strain from the local government.

Blacksburg’s Town Council unanimously voted on November 10th, 2020 to implement a special tax district that will require an additional 20-cent property tax per “hundred dollars of assessed value,” or .2 cents on the dollar, primarily to fund the construction of a new parking garage. This compounds the town’s standard tax rate of 26 cents per hundred dollars of value and Montgomery County’s mark of 89 cents per hundred dollars.

“If that parking garage doesn’t get built, none of those businesses are going to be able to thrive the way that they should,” said Councilman John Bush. “Customers and patrons won’t be able to go to the shops and find parking.”

A separate council member was unable to be reached for comments.

A blueprint of the planned building site, including the parking garage, a police station and other buildings (photo via the Roanoke Times).

With the continuation of markedly reduced indoor capacity, local shop owners are in danger of accumulating significant amounts of debt due to the low ceiling for profit. For some business owners, increased tax payments are simply not in the budget at this time.

COVID has taken its toll on entrepreneurs for over a year now— according to CBS News, as of February 10th, three out of 10 small businesses in America worry that they will not survive without additional government assistance. This would mean that roughly 9 million business owners would have to give up their dream and, in turn, close the doors to their establishment.

100,000 locally owned shops had already shut down as of May 2020, around two months into the pandemic— now that a year has gone by and life as we know it has been permanently altered, those who are still around are doing all that they can to adapt.

One such person is Blacksburg’s Jeremy Counts, owner and operator of Main St. Pharmacy.

Main st pharm
Main St. Pharmacy (photo via Twitter: @mainstreetpharm).

“Nobody was prepared for this,” said Counts in a Zoom interview on the evening of March 26th. “How could you be?”

COVID-19 first made headway in Blacksburg on March 11th, 2020, when Virginia Tech announced that it would be moving its classes to an online format after the completion of Spring Break. Two months later, Governor Northam signed “Executive Order Sixty-Three,” requiring Virginians to wear face coverings in public indoor settings, changing local life forever.

Since that time, Montgomery County, Virginia has been victim to 8,706 positive cases and 86 deaths, according to the New York Times, data that supports strict control over public spaces; however, the seven-day average for local COVID cases has fallen from 63 on February 24th to 23 on March 26th, suggesting that the Blacksburg area may be ready to open up further.

Screen Shot 2021 03 27 at 3 38 16 PM
Montgomery County, Virginia's COVID data (via the New York Times).

This falloff in positive cases is partly why Counts is a believer in Governor Northam’s plan for public health and safety, and feels that the Blacksburg government is being too strict with their protocols.

“We’ve seen way too many restaurants close because of the capacity limitations, and a lot of other businesses are struggling,” said an emotional Counts. “We’re a big event town— we need [events] for businesses to survive, and they’re struggling; it’s sad to watch.”

Virginia Tech is responsible for a majority of Blacksburg’s economic stimulation, generating roughly $1.2 billion in yearly income, according to data from labor market analytics firm Emsi. Despite budget adjustments and financial scrambling, the university is expecting to take a hit in the neighborhood of $60 million for the 2020-21 academic year.

The carryover between Virginia Tech’s financial shortcomings and the impact on the local economy cannot be understated: roughly 39% of the town’s revenue comes via food tax, hotel stays and local sales, according to Blacksburg Town Manager Marc Verniel. In the absence of an economically active student population and associated activities, Blacksburg was bound to suffer.

For Counts, this financial dependency on the younger generation is a major reason that the local capacity restriction should be eased.

“[The town government] is forcing [students] indoors, where they are more likely to spread COVID, binge drink and get into trouble,” Counts asserted. “[Students] need to be out, where we can make sure that they’re safe, and spending money in the local economy.”

The town has done its part to help bail out struggling businesses, whether in the form of “Blacksburg Bucks” that increased locals purchasing power twofold in designated stores, or recently opening up a second round of grant funding worth up to $10,000; however, neither of these approaches are sustainable for an extended period of time.

President Joe Biden recently announced his goal of making every adult eligible for the COVID vaccine by May 1st, as many states have recently succeeded in expanding their vaccination availability. For Blacksburg’s local business owners, this day cannot come soon enough.

“We are a town that relies on people coming to visit and enjoying large events,” stated Counts. “Hopefully it is back to normal by fall…we have to all work together, and we have to do our best to help each other.”

According to NPR data, 133 million doses of the vaccine have already been administered, while 47 million Americans (14% of the country’s population) have been fully vaccinated.

With any luck, local establishments will soon resume regular operations as cases continue to decline and vaccines disperse throughout the community.