St. Marys businesses count on community support to weather the COVID-19 economy

“It changed everyone’s life — and I don't know that it will go back to the way it was either, honestly, but I don't think it stopped the progress here."

  • By Lindsey Toomer and Brannon DeWolf/WPSU

COVID-19 is putting many small town businesses in Pennsylvania in a financial squeeze due to coronavirus closures and people quarantining. This summer, WPSU partnered with students in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications to look at how towns in central Pennsylvania, like St. Marys, are doing in the run-up to the presidential election.

(St. Mary’s) — “You have to understand something about St. Marys. This is not a typical place,” said Ann Gabler.

Gabler is the managing director of the chamber of commerce in St. Marys, a rural Elk County town of about twelve thousand people. Her family has owned and operated businesses in St. Marys since the 1850s, just eight years after the town’s official founding. Now, Gabler leads a local chamber of commerce with 300-plus members. She says her family’s history is just one part of a gritty tradition of local industry that sets St. Marys — and its economy — apart.

“There is no place like this. It is very, very easy to live here,” said Gabler. “If you want to get a job you can have a job. You can have a good-paying job. You can buy a house, you can buy a car, you can have a family, you can live nicely here.”

But that healthy economy is in danger because of coronavirus. In February, before the pandemic began, the unemployment rate in Elk County was 6.4%. By April, it had nearly quadrupled.

The town is home to over 100 industrial companies whose products can be found in things all over the world, from generators to airplanes to cars. In fact, 45% of Elk County jobs are in manufacturing at plants like the Keystone Powdered Metal Company, Domtar Paper Company, and S-G-L Carbon, according to the state’s latest employment data.

Although Elk County’s actual number of COVID-19 cases remains low at fewer than 70, rural american towns that rely on industrial jobs have been hit particularly hard. The virus interrupted supply lines and demand around the country, leaving many manufacturing lines on pause and employees waiting for work.

“It changed everyone’s life — and I don’t know that it will go back to the way it was either, honestly, but I don’t think it stopped the progress here. I don’t,” said Gabler.

The unemployment rate has come down by 7% since that April high.

Lindsey Toomer talked with one St. Marys resident about opening her own business during the pandemic.

Betsy Dutoit graduated from St. Marys Area High School in 2007. She soon left town for college and work but moved back after 13 years to open her own business. St. Marys Nutrition opened its doors on May 11th, and Dutoit says they’ve been slammed ever since. The smoothie and juice bar sells a variety of drinks that Dutoit says can serve as healthy meal alternatives for St. Marys locals. And while opening a business during a pandemic is a risk, Dutoit says she has seen twice the business she anticipated.

“We’re just boomin’ right now,” Dutoit said. “It’s crazy that during what you would expect to be an economic difficult time, that it’s just boomin’. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Dutoit says if anything, the coronavirus has helped her business.

Matt Slocum / AP Photo

A customer walks through the Penrose Diner after eating indoors during the coronavirus, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Philadelphia.

“There was this mass movement toward supporting local businesses. And so people were just kind of gravitating towards supporting any local business owner in town. They didn’t care what they were selling, they were going to buy it because they refused to let that town crash,” Dutoit said.

Lou Radkowski is the mayor of St. Marys. He says it’s essential for the town’s economy that local businesses are able to open up amid the pandemic. He says it’s important to balance public health guidelines with the ability to keep businesses alive and running — something he believes can be lost when making decisions at a big government level.

“You lose the fact that how integral these businesses and these people are to their communities. It’d be nice to have some realization that yep we have to balance the public health but there’s another facet of that public health question as well,” Radkowski said.

Radkowski says these small businesses don’t have the same support systems as large corporations. They often have just themselves to rely on to secure their livelihoods and their futures.

“They just want to run a small business. They don’t have corporate America behind them, they don’t have legions of lawyers behind them. They just have themselves and their family, and that’s what they want to do. And unfortunately, they’re the ones that are having to, I think carry a heavier load than others on it,” Radkowski said.

With the coronavirus continuing to spread in Pennsylvania and the timeframe for a vaccine uncertain, there’s no knowing when things will return to normal, or what that normal may be. Meanwhile, as local businesses reopen or open their doors, Radkowski is optimistic they’ll revive St. Marys’ economy.

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