July 21, 2012

Penn State scandal: Town fears loss of football season

Residents worry about economic fallout if Penn State's football program gets the 'death penalty.'

By MATT MORGAN McClatchy Newspapers

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Betsey Howell fears the so-called "death penalty" against Penn State football would have consequences similar to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

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A statue of former Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno stands outside Beaver Stadium. Questions remain about whether it should come down.

The Associated Press

WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN TO PATERNO STATUE?

As emotions continue to swirl around Penn State's larger-than-life statue of Joe Paterno, the university president is methodically seeking input from trustees, alumni and others about the fate of the monument.

The statue has become a lightning rod since an investigation concluded the Hall of Fame football coach and other top university officials concealed child sex abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago.

President Rodney Erickson is expected to announce his decision next week.

Predictably, it will be unpopular no matter what.

Many of Paterno's supporters will be incensed if the bronze statue comes down. But critics say it would be unseemly to leave the statue in place in the wake of an internal investigation that found Paterno, ousted President Graham Spanier and two other Penn State officials covered up a 2001 allegation against Sandusky to shield the university from bad publicity.

Paterno's family and attorneys for Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice President Gary Schultz vehemently deny any suggestion they protected a pedophile and call the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh inaccurate.

The statue, nearly 7 feet tall and weighing more than 900 pounds, was erected in 2001 in honor of Paterno's record-setting 324th Division I coaching victory and his "contributions to the university."

As he weighs its fate, Erickson must also consider how the NCAA will react if he leaves the monument in its current location outside Beaver Stadium. The governing body is investigating whether Penn State lost "institutional control" of its athletic program, and it could level harsh sanctions -- including a complete shutdown of the lucrative football program -- depending on the outcome of the probe.

In a conference call Thursday night, Penn State trustees asked Erickson for an update on the statue. Erickson replied that he is continuing his outreach, and he invited board members to share their thoughts with him, either on the call or privately, a trustee said.

The trustee spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because the board discussion was private.

-- The Associated Press

Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, said much like the oil spill, canceling the Penn State football season would create a "trickle-down effect" that would hurt tourism and drastically impact local restaurants, stores and hotels. "Football season is our beach season," she said.

Howell, like many other local residents and business owners, worries that major sanctions against the Penn State football program in light of the recent Freeh report's findings would lead to job losses, downsizing and plummeting revenue for Centre County. The report found that Penn State administrators covered up some of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky's crimes.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, in a recent PBS interview, said he does not "want to take anything off the table" with regard to Penn State, including the "death penalty" for the football program.

Downtown Improvement District Executive Director George Arnold said canceling the football season and the accompanying loss of tourism would severely affect Centre County's economy.

Arnold said football weekends are the main way businesses get back on track after summers when students leave the area.

"If (businesses) do not have the thousands of people that converge in State College on a football weekend, it would severely affect the downtown," he said. "We could see a drastically different landscape downtown."

In 2009, Penn State football brought more than $90 million to the county, according to a study done by the Pitteburgh-based Tripp Umbach firm for the university. A decade before, another study calculated football's annual windfall to be about $83 million.

"That portion of what the university brings to the community is extremely important," said Vern Squier, president of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County. Mike Desmond, owner of Hotel State College and Co., said the loss of a football season would harm not only businesses, but the students as well.

"It would be devastating to the local economy. It would be devastating for the students. And it would be devastating to the university's mission of serving the students," he said.

Hotel State College and Co. owns several downtown businesses, including the Corner Room, Bill Pickle's Tap Room, Zeno's Pub and the Indigo club.

Howell said the economic consequences of no football could be "dire" and dramatically alter the way businesses are run.

"You have to look at the bigger picture," she said. "If a local business owner is not making money he is going to have to let employees go."And that could be the reality at places like the Student Book Store.

General Manager John Lindo said the loss of Penn State football for an extended period of time would almost certainly result in company downsizing and fewer employees.

Lindo estimated that SBS sells about 60 percent of its apparel and gift merchandise during football weekends - revenue that makes up the majority of the company's business.

"The entire downtown relies on those seven or eight weekends to get through the year," he said. He added that there is no way to know for certain how big the impact would be without football. But he predicts it would be "pretty huge."

Penn State football directly and indirectly created 1,731 jobs in Centre County in 2009, according to the Tripp Umbach report.

Even if local residents, who may avoid a crowded downtown State College during those weekends, make a concerted effort to shop, that would not help enough to offset the losses incurred by businesses, Arnold said.

"Ten thousand people making a conscious effort going out to shop downtown can't replace the 100,000 people coming down on a football weekend," he said.

But downtown State College would not be the only area affected by revenue losses.

Gary Hoover, executive director of the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce, said even 10 miles away from Beaver Stadium his town is crowded on those weekends.

Though Hoover said the sanction would create a "very large impact" on the whole county's economy, he does not think any Bellefonte businesses would have to close as a result.

Pat Daugherty, owner of the Tavern Restaurant in State College, said he's more concerned about the fortunes of his 15 full-time employees and his 80 Penn State student employees than he is about any lost business profits.

If he had to shrink his staff because football disappeared, students who depend on their wages to go to school would suffer, Daugherty said."It would obviously hurt the kids," he said. And that, for him, is the bottom line.

Other Penn State teams rely on football for financial support. Student organizations draw on stadium crowds for fundraising. Take all that away, he said, and blameless people pay the price.

"The whole reason we're here is because of the students," Daugherty said. "That's why Penn State exists; that's why the town exists. They're kids, too, and we have to take care of them."

Like many State College residents and businesses, Arnold still hopes that the NCAA does not punish the current football team, and instead leaves it up to the justice system to hand out the necessary penalties to the individuals involved."We're hopeful that the NCAA will not penalize the university and the town of State College and so many others for the actions of a few," he said.

 

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