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Gainesville, Tallahassee businesses agree: ‘God help us all if we don’t have football'

With the fate of Gators and Seminoles football unknown because of the pandemic, tens of millions of dollars are being jeopardized in two of the state's top college towns.

The strain from the coronavirus pandemic has been so severe that it’s causing a rare sight: Florida and Florida State fans cheering for the same thing.

“Even the Gator faithful want Florida State football to play,” said Sue Dick, the president and CEO of the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce.

Whether the Seminoles, Gators or anyone else can play this fall remains unclear. Even though the ACC and SEC updated their football schedules on Wednesday and Thursday, their plans the pandemic could force them to change again between now and September.

As the uncertainty of an abbreviated or eliminated season lingers, it’s creating economic unease in Tallahassee and Gainesville, jeopardizing tens of millions of dollars that could bail out businesses struggling the most.

Related: Five non-pandemic questions as UF, FSU, USF and Miami prepare for next football practice phase

David Coburn, our (athletic director), said it best: God help us all if we don’t have football,” said For The Table Hospitality manager partner Matt Thompson, whose portfolio includes the popular Tallahassee bar/restaurant Madison Social.

The influx of fans and tailgaters for FSU games is crucial to the Tallahassee economy. [ JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times ]

In normal times, football seasons are vital for the economies of both major college towns. A Downs & St. Germain Research study estimated that out-of-town visitors spent $48 million in Leon County during FSU’s perfect 2014 regular season; last year, the direct spending was probably closer to $35 million.

The University of Florida estimates visitor spending in football at $70 million, with about $20 million coming from out-of-state guests, said Christa Court, the director of UF’s Economic Impact Analysis Program. Gators football is enough of a draw that some restaurants open in the summer to work out any kinks before fans flock in the fall.

“For a lot of places around town, college football Saturdays are the same as Black Friday,” said Shaw Adcock, the marketing coordinator for the Greater Gainesville Chamber.

Related: What happens to the home-field advantage without fans?

Some of the industries that rely on football are obvious. Accommodations, restaurants and entertainment made up 62 percent of the direct spending from visitors during FSU’s 2014 season.

Opposing fans often stop by the tap room at First Magnitude Brewing Company the night before Gator games. When Colorado State came to Gainesville in 2018, Rams fans packed the place.

“They spend a lot of money, quite frankly,” said John Denny, First Magnitude’s head brewer and co-founder. “That’s not going to happen right now.”

Brewers and bars will take a hit if the Gators aren't playing this fall, or if their season is cut short. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Some businesses you might not expect, like Nic’s Toggery in Tallahassee, will also miss the influx of visitors.

Victor Gavalas’ family business isn’t centered on FSU football, but his three clothing stores get a bump when the Seminoles are home, especially if they’re playing UF, Miami or Clemson. Some visiting fans stop by every time they’re in town.

“It’s a big deal not just for me but for the whole community, for everybody,” Gavalas said. “And I mean everybody.”

When FSU was rolling in 2014, everybody benefited; the estimated $48 million in direct spending led to an additional indirect economic impact of $23.5 million and another $22 million in induced economic impact, according to Downs & St. Germain Research.

Related: FSU athletics to cut operating budget 20 percent, cutting pay because of coronavirus pandemic

But if FSU can’t play this season, then everybody will be hurting. Financial trouble with restaurants and hotels affect potential customers for Gavalas’ 70-year-old company, which could trickle down to his 18 employees. Retail problems bleed into commercial real estate.

“It’s kind of a domino effect,” Dick said.

And the dominoes have been falling for months.

When the spring shutdown sent students home and wiped out visitors from softball, baseball, spring football and commencement, Thompson’s seven bars, restaurants and food businesses lost their steadiest month of the year and are still down 40 percent during their always-slow summer. Despite making positive strides in June, the unemployment rates in Leon (7.2 percent) and Alachua County (6.7 percent) are still double what they were a year ago, according to state figures.

Tallahassee’s recovery took another hit two weeks ago when the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference suspended fall sports, sidelining Florida A&M football indefinitely.

“It’s just one more bad thing,” Gavalas said. “They keep piling up on each other. That’s all we need — a pandemic, no football and a hurricane. It’ll be a perfect storm.”

Tallahassee businesses are counting on fans like these to be in town for FSU football this fall. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

If the storm continues, it will batter accommodations, restaurants and entertainment — three of the business sectors that have been reeling the most from the pandemic.

“The costs have gone up, and the revenue, the bottom has fallen out…” said Kerri Post, the executive director of Visit Tallahassee. “Everybody right now is holding their breath.”

In Gainesville, the 86-acre mixed-use development Celebration Pointe is brainstorming ways its hotel, shops and restaurant can try to mitigate the impact from a season that won’t approach normal tourism levels. If fewer fans are allowed at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, maybe Celebration Pointe can become the socially distanced gathering spot for Gators football.

But that plan only works if there’s a season.

“In the event there aren’t games, there’s no way to mitigate that impact,” said Sean McIntosh, its senior vice president of asset management.

Related: Marching bands aren’t sure how to handle the pandemic. So they commissioned two studies involving spit.

The damage looks even worse considering where expectations were six months ago, when the Gators were discussing College Football Playoff hopes and FSU was buzzing around coach Mike Norvell’s first season. Add in a solid Seminoles home schedule (with visits from UF and Clemson), and Thompson was envisioning a strong autumn for his hospitality group. Now he’s hoping it hits 25 percent of normal.

And even that might be optimistic.

“If we don’t have a season this year, I can’t even imagine how many of our good, regular customers may close,” said Denny, the Gainesville brewer. “It’s one thing to lose accounts for the season. To think that some of those folks may have to close permanently, it’s pretty frightening.”

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