For tire dealers in rural America, it’s not uncommon for a community’s economy to revolve around the largest business in town. But what happens when that ‘business’ is a university, and a good number of its students leave town due to a global pandemic?
That’s the world Chris Cornelius and the team at Clair and Dee’s Point S Tire and Auto Service find themselves facing. Rexburg, Idaho is home to Brigham Young University-Idaho, a year-round university that this semester had more than 19,000 students on campus. In March the university canceled its in-person classes and transitioned to an online-only education. But the campus technically didn't close – some students remained in their housing units since they had already paid for them for this semester and the next – but the school asked students who did leave Rexburg not to return, in an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus.
BYU-Idaho's next semester of classes, which begin in late April, will be online only, too. That means for Cornelius and Clair and Dee’s Point S, there’s no promise of a return to normal any time soon.
“That’s a concern to us. We’re trying to get a feel for how many might sit in their apartments and stick around town and how many will return to their (home) communities,” Cornelius says.
He doesn’t have an exact figure for how much of his business comes from the students and staff of BYU-Idaho, but estimates “the direct and indirect impact of the university on our business easily would be 50%.”
He says if not for the university, he thinks Madison County, with almost 40,000 residents, would have 4,000 residents. His family’s business is one of 12 retail businesses where consumers can buy a set of tires.
Cornelius is trying not to panic, because the university’s professors and staff and their families all remain. But, “we need to react,” he says. And the business needs to protect the rest of its staff.
“What we need to do is make sure we don’t lose our highly skilled help, our technicians that have been here four-, five-, six- or seven-years. Our full-time, ASE-certified mechanics. We’ve got to keep their families fed because we were already in a crisis of finding good help before this crisis happened.
“I don’t want to come out of this event not having them. It’s all hands on deck to do what we can to keep them.”
That means Clair and Dee’s is promoting its pickup and drop off tire and automotive services. That means it’s hustling to serve the agricultural customers who are working in the fields. “Ag is a large part of what we deal with. Spring is upon us and these people are moving. That’s a big priority for us to ensure they can continue to provide food for families.”
As for his tire suppliers that have mostly shut down production in the U.S., Cornelius says the business followed its traditional inventory model at the beginning of 2020.
“We traditionally bleed our inventory down in the last quarter of the year, and traditionally wait until 60 days into the first quarter and we beef up,” Cornelius says. “Inventories are fat at the moment. We’re nervous that they’re fat, but we’re thankful they’re fat.”