The Signal

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Sunday June 26th

Adapt, adjust, pivot: Campus Town businesses continue to fight through pandemic

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By Alicia Basilici

Imagine a bustling, modern village at the start of a new day. The sound of leaves brushing across the pavement mixes with the dull murmur of students chatting. Late for class, they shuffle and bump into each other along the paths between the many high-rise buildings. A distinct vibrancy, one exclusive to a college town, fills the air as businesses open their doors to the fresh, new day.

In the wake of Covid-19, this once-common scene has become a seemingly distant memory in Campus Town.

The College announced on Aug. 3 that it would abandon plans for hybrid learning and implemented an all-remote fall semester. This decision came as New Jersey remained in Phase Two of its reopening plan. In response, tenancy in the apartments at Campus Town declined and businesses were faced with more significant challenges in their economic recovery.

According to Greg Lentine, the senior vice president of The PRC Group, which manages the Campus Town buildings, only 370 students at the College currently reside in the apartments provided.

Typically, this facility houses 612 students during the school year. The sharp decline in residency has impacted businesses inside the development. Keri Mandell, the owner of Empower Yoga, has gone from serving hundreds of new clients to about two or three new patrons each week.

With many students home due to the pandemic, business in Campus Town try to adapt to the new normal (Darby Vandeveen / Photo Editor).

“It's not just our business — all small businesses are definitely affected by the virus,” Mandell said. “It’s hit a lot of people, and it’s just been hard.”

After nearly four years in business, this yoga instructor and entrepreneur has grown accustomed to the cyclical nature of the market in a college town. A busy fall and spring fade into slow summer months, but none as quiet as this.

When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy allowed small studios like hers to open in July, hardly anyone ventured to her facility. Mandell notes that several yoga studios in the Princeton area have since closed following the pandemic.

“I’m trying to find a silver lining, and adapt and adjust and pivot,” Mandell said. “It’s a learning process, and we’re pivoting the best we can.”

Empower Yoga began offering online classes, available both in the morning and in the evening. Mandell hopes this program can attract folks not only in Ewing, but also across the state. As the months have passed, she has seen an increased number of people taking these virtual classes along with people coming back inside the studio.

“With the pandemic, people were afraid to leave their house or go out to eat,” Mandell said, recalling the early days of the Covid-19 lockdowns. “People now are more apt to try things or go out.”

Similarly, Lentine is also able to maintain a positive outlook. He has witnessed more people roaming the streets around campus lately, and feels that a return to a semblance of normalcy may arrive sooner rather than later.

According to Lentine, students have expressed a great interest in returning to campus life. He recalled conversations with some who long for the traditional college experience and want to get out of their childhood homes.

“When I left campus today, there were so many people walking around, even in the rain,” Lentine said. “I think people are starting to realize there is still life out there.”

Although the wily nature of the virus leaves it almost impossible to predict how a spring semester at the College might look, Lentine hopes events like car shows and farmer's markets will soon return with students.

While hesitant to state specifics in an interview with The Signal, Lentine expects students will even have some new businesses to explore upon their return to campus. At Empower Yoga, Mandell hopes more folks will return to the studio come spring. With the College now planning to offer a hybrid schedule where students can choose to take some classes on campus, this hope may soon become a reality.

“I’m hopeful for the future,” Mandell said. “I’m hopeful more folks come back. I’m positive. There’s going to be things that challenge you and rock your world a little bit, but you have to stay calm and breathe and know that feeling will pass, and that you’ll be OK.”


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