Nnestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a wooded spot overlooking a man-made lake on the edge of the Clemson University campus, the James F Martin Inn is the awful retreat where thought leaders check in to national conferences on education and distressed parents check out before bidding their first-year child a final tearful goodbye. Along with its pastoral trails, on-site dining and adjoining golf course with bunkers shaped to echo the tiger paw logo on the university football team, the inn offers yet another luxury that is likely to be of interest to rabid football fans: a 20-minute walk to Memorial Stadium.
They call the stadium Death Valley, a name that nods to the dry forces of 81,500 Clemson fans at full throttle. Even more resonant is their impact on this upstate city with a permanent population of just over 16,000, making a leap from the 33rd largest city in South Carolina during the summer holidays to the state’s most populous on football Saturdays.
The tens of thousands who cannot fit in Death Valley are happy to backtrack by land or lake. Much of the remaining overflow suffocates College Avenue, where supporters dressed in orange and purple wrap themselves inside downtown bars and shops like cotton swabs. But when Covid swept through last year and snatched life from this party, the knock-on effects fared worse than any defeat to South Carolina or Alabama. “Everything just fell apart,” says Sharon Franks, the inn’s longtime general manager.
Football is not just the tide flowing Clemson’s athletic division of $ 130 million. it is the lifeblood of this society. The local chamber of commerce estimates that a single football game has a minimum economic impact of $ 2 million. tax money flowing to the police, public works and other items in the city budget of 28 million. Related companies collect as much as 50% of their annual revenue during the Tigers’ seven home games each year. “We are very blessed,” said Clemson Mayor Robert Halfacre.
In this city-and-dress symbiosis, Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney is more than the $ 8 million man who mocks the idea of student-athletes getting a piece of the pie. (“That’s where you’re losing me,” he said in a 2015 interview, raw meat for an old-fashioned John Oliver distortion.) Julie Ibrahim, owner of a pair of clothing stores called The Tiger Sports Shop, calls Clemson football “our stock market. “And has an awe for Swinney that is reminiscent of Wall Street’s awe for Warren Buffett.” If you want to say something bad about Dabo, “she says of the coach, who has picked up two national titles in the last five seasons,” you can forget it in front of me. He’s actually my hero. ”
The more Clemson does under Swinney, the more other entrepreneurs look green. “A lot of people come here for a football weekend and say to themselves, ‘Wow, this town could use another bar or restaurant or clothing store,’ and open a place,” said Cameron Farish, co-owner of Tiger Town Tavern, a homely downtown bar. that turns into a mosh pit on game days. “And then when the business does not reach it, it is because there is no football match. What they are not aware of is that you make sauce seven weekends a year, but you have to make a biscuit for 360. ”
Covid did not just steal biscuits; it set a raging fire in the kitchen. That forced Clemson to shut down in mid-March, enveloping its sports scene in uncertainty. The Atlantic Coast Conference, where Clemson competes, canceled spring sports, a not insignificant stream of revenue for the Clemson community, and kept the excitement going all summer about its fall plans for football.
To halt an estimated $ 25 million shortfall Due to the pandemic, the Clemson athletics department discontinued its men’s athletics and cross-country teams, marking for the first time that an elite-level college athletics school, Power 5, had dropped those sports. Clemson’s football coaches were forced to pay cuts; USA Today found that the amount charged from Swinney, a relatively modest $ 698,500, nevertheless exceeded the annual salary of at least 24 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches.
The ACC eventually decided to move on with the 2020 football season, but there was a limit of 19,000 spectators at Death Valley, and the team played only six home games in a shortened schedule.
On top of all this, the virus itself was taken into account – which introduced more disorder into the football pitch as the ACC adjusted its Covid protocols in real time. Not only did more than 20 players test positive for Covid during the preseason, but the Tigers eventually lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the virus in two games.
Overall, the city of Clemson experienced a decline of 1.8 million. Dollars in circulation between September 2019 and September 2020 as a result of the pandemic. “If you just talk about hospitality and accommodation taxes, the average loss was 18.5%,” Halfacre says. All the while hotel reservations dried up and bars and shops struggled to get people to flow through their doors under strict masking and social distancing guidelines. On game days, Clemson went from the biggest party in the state to a true snooze party. “We closed for four weeks during the pandemic while the university struggled to find out everything,” said Franks, the innkeeper.
Lucky for the inn, its bond with the university proved to be a saving grace. When athletics was back at Clemson, the inn used the inn to house visiting teams and recruits during the fall – an event that kept Franke’s people at work. “The other hotels struggled a little more because they did not have that opportunity.”
The few Clemson companies that did not struggle were mostly attached to the city’s great outdoors, on hiking trails, or rented boats, where social distancing comes more naturally. Rental off-campus also thrived during the pandemic. “Our students were trying to get out of our lease,” says Katie Green of Tiger Properties. “Unfortunately, due to our lease, there is no clause to break the lease.” That is even though the university has frozen undergraduate education for the second year in a row.
That’s enough to make you wonder how differently Covid could have influenced this society if, for example. Was a supplier of car parts or a bottling plant in the city. Why it is not is less a matter of economics than geography.
The city of Clemson stretches for less than eight inland square miles. It is surrounded by mountains, lake and tens of thousands of acres of protected forest land. Clemson University stretches over 1,400 acres.
The city’s unique alloy of staggering popularity and land shortage means that high property values and property taxes match – especially compared to Greenville, Anderson and other neighboring towns, where there are more tax breaks and room to grow. Therefore, car dealerships, large checkout stores and other tent pole stores are located on the outskirts of the city, while smaller, hospitality-driven businesses operate within the confines of the campus. These restrictions do not just drive away the big industries. They prevent entrepreneur-minded Clemson degrees from building their firms around the university, which can help diversify the local economy away from solely football in the same way that Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest degrees have in and around the research triangle. “Go and look around these cities,” said Farish, a barkeeper who also sits on the city’s economic development advisory council. “There are think tanks, engineering companies, software startups, biomedical companies. And these places employ husbands and wives for professors, faculties, and staff. And they diversify the economy of the cities that were once bedroom communities. Clemson does not have that. ”
When Tiger’s sport is in season, small business owners thrive and also keep students and cities profitably employed. But as sports went away during the pandemic, local entrepreneurs had to get creative to survive. Ibrahim, the owner of Tiger Sports Shop, was ready to suffer steep losses last year when the usual foot traffic in and out of her stores fell to a herring under Covid. But with the help of manager Shawn Cartmill, she quickly turned to selling face masks with Clemson logos as she expanded her online business, adding curbs and drive-thru service.
“There were a lot of things I thought about before Covid hit, you know what could make football go,” said Ibrahim, who has been in the business since 1974. “Would it be too many injuries or would they go “On trial? for some reason? This has been the biggest and most unusual crisis we have had in our business. But we are still strong and want to move forward at full speed until someone tells us otherwise.”
On Saturday, Clemson Football returned to campus in full force, with the home team resurrected to a 49-3 blow against South Carolina State after being stumbled upon by Georgia a week earlier on neutral ground in Charlotte. Death Valley was packed, the bars and shops were full, and College Avenue rocked once more (albeit with some social distance measures left in place). The party is officially back, but how long no one can say for sure. With delta and other covid variants in the air, a community holds its breath. The last thing this city needs is another pandemic closure. If it seems like people here are rooted in tigers, as if their lives depended on it, well, that’s because they do.