The lifeblood of Groningen
What if the students don’t come back?
When the pubs and restaurants in the Netherlands were finally allowed to reopen a few weeks ago, the owners of tearoom Bij Britta across from the Harmony building were excited to see customers again. They couldn’t wait to start selling the home-baked cakes that they are known for.
Nobody showed up.
By now, people have slowly started trickling back in, enjoying the sun on the tiny terrace that Bij Britta has on its doorstep. But one thing is clear: with the university still practically closed, it’s hard to run a business in this city.
Students make up almost one third of Groningen’s entire population. Many of them have left the city, though, to go back to their home countries or their parents. The cycling ban that was introduced in the centre was even lifted again because the expected rush of students, among others, did not materialise.
Students account for one of the biggest consumer groups
The local businesses who had hoped to pick up where they left off are now faced with a new problem: how to survive without their most important customers. Students are the lifeblood of Groningen; without them, the city is dead.
What will happen now that classes will probably be mostly online for at least another semester? Now that the introduction week, the KEI, will be held online? There won’t be much of an incentive for freshmen to move to Groningen. What are the consequences of a decline in students coming to the city next year?
Economic geography associate professor Sierdjan Koster believes that local businesses are going to suffer. ‘Students account for one of the biggest consumer groups. Businesses that cater to this group, especially bars and clubs, are going to be affected.’
Many of the venues are already struggling, says Limuel Mulder, co-owner of student bar Dorst. ‘We received about four thousand euros for three months and the government paid 90 percent of employees’ salaries’, he explains. ‘But here’s the catch: we still have to pay 100 percent of the taxes, so it’s really not that much money.’
The social distancing measures pose extra problems. Mulder’s bar normally has space for about a hundred party-goers; now the maximum number of people allowed inside is sixteen. Being forced to sit at your own table the whole night, not allowed to dance, is not exactly what students want when they go out. Mulder does see a flicker of hope: even though he had fewer guests, the ones that did come stayed longer and spent more money.
Bram Steenhuis, co-owner of club OOST, has received help from some of his regulars that donate money or buy some of his merchandise. Yet he, too, realises how dependent he is on student customers. ‘Students really are the lifeblood of the local nightlife’, he says.
We heavily depend on young adults
Fewer students could also lead to bars and cafes shutting down. While this is sad, there will be other places students can go. However, the vibrant start-up scene in the city also depends on young people, says Mairis Vaneker, consultant of economic affairs at the municipality of Groningen. Groningen has 3,626 companies in the creative industry alone and multinationals IBM and Google are also settled in the region.
The city is beloved by companies because it offers access to a highly educated international and diversified labour force. ‘It will have a huge impact on our city’s ecosystem if students stop coming to Groningen’, says Vaneker. ‘We are one of the youngest cities in Europe and heavily depend on young adults.’
The international students – over ten thousand of them, one sixth of the total – are especially important. The exchange between nationalities helps to foster innovation and a considerable number of international students gets involved in the start-up scene after graduating. ‘A decline in students, especially internationals, will have an impact on how the whole start-up scene is built up and how companies within this arena work’, Vaneker says. ‘Research has shown that the more diverse your team is, the better the end result.’
On top of that, quite a few students are entrepreneurs and start their own business, which brings a lot of life and energy to the local economy. ‘The effects wouldn’t be that dramatic in the first, second or third year, but if this is a systemic trend, the start-up culture would slowly become less attractive. That would in turn impact the decision of other companies to come here’, says Koster. ‘It’s not something that happens overnight, but if it does, it’s a downward spiral, something that’s self-reinforcing.’
Then there’s the dynamism students add to Groningen. ‘The diversity that internationals bring to the table is good for our city’, explains Mark van Duijn, assistant professor of economic geography. The market shows a much wider variety in products than it did ten years ago. Asian students, for example, created a demand for Asian supermarkets, but the locals have profited from this, too.
Local businesses will have to fight for survival
‘Some of these shops, especially the ones that cater to students, may be forced to close if there is a heavy decline in customers’, van Duijn adds. ‘If a large number of students decides not to come to Groningen, local businesses will get hurt twice. If there are fewer students and supply outweighs the demand, they will have to fight for survival.’
Is it all bad news, then? Not necessarily. Some Stadjers – Groningen’s non-student citizens – may welcome the development. People who don’t go to bars or the Asian supermarket, or don’t need personnel for their start-up. They’ll have less reason to complain about noisy students partying in the house next door, for example, or students biking through the city centre kamikaze style.
Another plus: the housing crisis might be alleviated. The students who are here already will most likely have less trouble finding a decent space for a decent price. There also won’t be as much competition for the popular jobs that many students have after class.
Even local bar owners might benefit, says Merlijn Poolman, Groningen’s night mayor. ‘When bars and clubs are only focused on students, going out becomes less appealing for the older generations. You don’t really find a blend of different age categories in the centre and there should be a balance, covering everything from the age of eighteen to sixty.’
Students have tight budgets and spend significantly less than people with a stable income when they go out. If venue owners are able to attract older people, they might raise their profits.
In the end though, even Stadjers who hate students will feel the impact. ‘Students bring in a lot of energy’, Koster says. ‘Many of them are part of a sports club or actively engage in the music scene, for instance. Some of those might cease to exist altogether if the number of students doesn’t go back up, leading to a decline of the service level on a larger scale. And that impacts all citizens.’