Mitch Newlin, manager of The Gelato Fiasco, in the Brunswick store Monday. The Gelato Fiasco’s CEO estimates that 30 percent of the revenue at the Maine Street location comes from Bowdoin College customers.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As if the economic fallout of COVID-19 wasn’t bad enough, the midcoast business community got more bad news Monday when Bath Iron Works’ biggest union went on strike and Bowdoin College announced that most students wouldn’t be returning to the Brunswick campus this fall.

The shipyard strike means the 4,300 members of the Machinists’ Union won’t be coming into Bath from every county in the state, boosting the town’s population by half, on a daily basis, filling up their cars at the gas stations, their stomachs at Midcoast Pizza & More and their medical prescriptions at Wilson’s Drugstore.

The last BIW strike was 20 years ago, but people are still talking about its impacts on Bath, City Councilor Jennifer DeChant said.

“We have some downtown businesses within walking distance of the main gates that really count on the shipyard workers taking their lunch breaks there, or shopping before or after work,” she said. “Then we have others that serve the local Bath families who work there. It’s a scary time right now, especially considering that we’re still (dealing with) a pandemic, too.”

The town, and the business community, will be watching as the strike unfolds, but it’s still too early to gauge its impact, DeChant said. It depends on how long the strike lasts, if those coming to Bath to picket will still patronize the local shops, and if BIW itself will continue to remain active in the business community, Dechant said.

Members of Local S6 of the Machinists Union picket in Bath on Monday morning after they rejected a three-year contract over the weekend. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The 2000 strike lasted 55 days. On Monday, the first day of the current strike, about 100 workers came to Bath to walk the picket line.

The impact of the strike will be felt far beyond Bath. In 2018, BIW paid out $350 million in payroll to 5,600 employees from as far away as Biddeford, Skowhegan and Farmington, and spent an estimated $45 million a year on goods and services from 300 Maine companies, according to legislative testimony. Since then, the company has hired another 1,100 people.

Midcoast Pizza & More was counting on BIW employees to help it emerge from the dark days of the pandemic. The owners say the shipyard helped it stay afloat when it was takeout only. The pizzeria, which is located a few steps from BIW’s north gate, reopened for dine-in service just last week, starting with the lunches that are a favorite with hungry yard workers.

“Bath Iron Works has been very kind and has helped a lot of business to get through these times by ordering meals from them and keeping their businesses able to continue to pay their employees and not go bankrupt,” the owners posted on their Facebook page as it prepared to reopen, before the strike. “We appreciate all of your support during such confusing times.”

The campus was quiet at Bowdoin College in Brunswick on Monday, the day the college announced its plan to continue remote learning and keep about two-thirds of its 1,800 students off campus in the fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Twelve miles to the east, a Brunswick community that had been waiting to see how Bowdoin was going to handle the fall semester got clarity Monday, even if it wasn’t the decision that businesses that rely on student revenues wanted to hear. The verdict: only first-year students and transfers will live on campus this fall.

The absence of about two-thirds of Bowdoin’s 1,800 students – which usually boosts Brunswick’s school year population by about 12 percent – spells trouble for the lively Maine Street business district that is a short stroll from the private liberal arts college. Although the decision was expected, businesses that rely on student revenue are worried about how they will deal with further losses.

“They are going to take a hit, no question,” said Debora King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association. “My feeling right now is: I hate 2020 and we all need to just get through it.”

Gelato Fiasco is among the businesses regularly frequented by Bowdoin students. Co-founder and CEO Josh Davis estimates that 30 percent of the revenue at the Maine Street location comes from Bowdoin.

“We’re supportive of what it takes to fight the pandemic, but we’ll definitely miss them,” he said.

Since the pandemic forced most public-facing businesses to adapt, Gelato Fiasco has gone from an indoor, sit-down space where customers can ogle at the display case of flavors to a more traditional ice cream stand model, where people walk up, get their order and leave.

“We feel lucky in some ways that our adaptation has a template,” Davis said. “Standing on a sidewalk in July eating gelato makes sense, but January is going to be a different story if things don’t change.”

Wild Oats Café & Bakery, in the Tontine Mall, is typically teeming with Bowdoin students during the school year.

“We knew no matter what decision they made, it would be another hit to us in some way or another,” owner Becky Shepherd said.

Still, Shepherd said she and her staff have done so much work to change the business model, she’s not sure if it would appeal to students.

“I think they will be less interested in curbside service than in sitting inside and studying here,” she said. “We can’t offer that social piece and I know that takes the appeal away.”

Before the pandemic, Wild Oats was in the process of relocating to a new space on the former Navy base near the Cook’s Corner neighborhood of Brunswick. That transition has stalled somewhat, but Shepherd said the move is still going to happen.

Mitch Newlin, manager of The Gelato Fiasco in Brunswick, helps customers with their decision from a safe distance Monday. Businesses like Gelato Fiasco “are going to take a hit, no question,” said Debora King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“All this curbside business has made us learn so much about what we need in our building … I wish I had installed a drive-through,” she said.

King, with the downtown association, said it’s not just the fact that students will not be returning in the fall. There will be no athletics, either, which typically draw people in, and the Maine State Music Theatre, whose facility is on Bowdoin’s campus, has canceled all 2020 shows.

“We’re working really hard to encourage people who have opted for staycations to be supportive of our local businesses and see us all through this bad time,” she said.

T.J. Siatras, who owns Joshua’s Tavern with his wife, said he’s noticed more local people dining at his restaurant since he opened up outdoor seating in line with the state’s policies.

“Now that we’re up and running, with mostly outdoor seating, we’re seeing less retirement-age people and certainly less tourism,” he said. “We’ve been without college students for months already, but I would say looking forward to fall, what I’d expect is probably all of us looking at a decrease in revenue, although I don’t think it will be catastrophic.

“This whole event has been sort of an opportunity for businesses to evaluate whether it was time to retire or if their business was as strong as they wanted it to be.”

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