Opinion | Students need to support local businesses

Alex Jobin, Staff Columnist

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only wreaked havoc on our healthcare system, but it has also had a massive impact on our economy. Now more than ever, the local businesses of Tuscaloosa need our help. 

A 2020 poll of 500 small business owners across the nation revealed that 90% of local businesses were negatively affected by COVID-19. Of those surveyed, 43% reported that the crisis had a “severe negative impact” on their livelihood. 

Although the federal coronavirus relief bills provided some small businesses with much-needed financial support amid the pandemic, not everyone has been able to access those funds or to stretch them enough to last the duration of our seemingly never-ending crisis. That, coupled with the inherent economic fragility of many local businesses — at any given time, the median small business only has enough cash on hand to survive two weeks — has unfortunately caused many business owners to close their doors. 

In April 2020, weeks into the pandemic, millions of small businesses had already closed. Some have since reopened, but many have not.

The damage that COVID-19 has already dealt to local businesses is apparent. However, we can support the businesses that we care about and make sure that they thrive past the end of the pandemic. 

Here in Tuscaloosa, our local businesses are heavily impacted by the presence of students. Economics professor Will Walsh emphasized this point: “As a college town, a higher proportion of Tuscaloosa businesses are reliant on UA’s operation than in most cities/towns. … So if/when UA shuts down (or discourages ‘regular’ activities or reduces capacity at events) these businesses are left in a precarious position.” 

Therefore, it is even more important that the UA community supports Tuscaloosa’s local businesses during this time. This idea is echoed by leaders within the Tuscaloosa community.

Jim Page is the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. 

“Students supporting local businesses, choosing to spend their dollar here, is always important,” Page said. “After the events of these last years, it’s more important than ever. When students are intentional about choosing local, they strengthen the community. … Students all chose Tuscaloosa as a place to live, and by not being intentional about supporting local businesses, we risk losing all the places that make it so special. It’s so easy to buy online, but by going into the real brick-and-mortar buildings around them, students make a real impact.” 

Students are not just choosing a university when they attend college; they are choosing a home. When we invest in Tuscaloosa businesses, we are also investing in the Tuscaloosa community through our contribution to tax dollars which ultimately provide for public services.

Additionally, we are illustrating that community’s value, its sustainability and its unique culture. Spending our dollar at Buffalo Phil’s, Gentleman’s Grooming or Rama Jama’s helps to bridge the gap between the University and Tuscaloosa at large. 

Students’ support of local businesses isn’t limited to their spending. Social media serves as a platform that promotes a completely different kind of advertising, one that prizes personal experience and relatability. 

Page emphasized the impact that promoting local businesses on social media can have: “When students have a good experience at a local business, make it known. This is great advertising for the places you love; it serves as a reminder [for] people that may forget what Tuscaloosa has to offer. When people see recommendations from friends and people they know, they’re more likely to trust them and spend their money there.”

As college students, we are already heavily involved in social media. Why not channel the time we spend on these platforms into uplifting the community around us?

Students can also support the businesses they love through their employment. To quote Page, “Tuscaloosa has faced many workforce challenges recently, just like the rest of the country. I encourage students that need a part-time job to consider applying at a local business. They’re all struggling to find workers right now. It’s a great opportunity for students to get additional income and work experience, but it’s also a way for businesses to have qualified and passionate people on staff. … It’s a win-win!” 

The relationship between students and Tuscaloosa businesses is a symbiotic one. When they succeed, so do we, and vice versa. By working in the community, students have the opportunity not only to support the economy but to experience the city in a completely different way.

When we think about helping small businesses, we might think of large-scale public policies, like federal subsidies or tax incentives, that are beyond our control. It can be easy to forget that we, as individuals, have the power to make a direct positive impact on our local economy.

As we build back from the damage of COVID-19, we must not forget about local businesses. We should give them the support that they have given us for all these years, whether through job applications, social media posts or simply through our dollars.

An investment in the local community truly is an investment in ourselves. Bringing Tuscaloosa’s small businesses closer to the University will only improve our collective college experience. It will make Tuscaloosa feel like our home away from home.