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Local businesses reflect on financial impact of 2020 Relays cancellation

Photo by Brady Lovig | Staff Photographer

The Drake Relays bring in large crowds of people, ranging from runners to spectators to partiers, to the Des Moines area annually. 

Last year, many businesses struggled when not only were the Relays cancelled, but students were sent home early. According to Drake University’s annual economic impact study, the Relays bring in $4.2 million in revenue to the Des Moines area, while student spending supports 831 jobs in the local economy. The sudden disappearance of all those funds, compounded by the multi-week shutdown, had a significant impact on area businesses, particularly those around campus. 

Lauren Vilmain, the owner of the Drake Diner, said the impact of COVID had on her business was significant.

“It was really hard for us,” Vilmain said. “With no Drake Relays, no State Track Competition, no graduations, and other events being cancelled because of Covid, we could really feel it affecting our business.” 

Vilmain isn’t alone. Alec Davis, owner of Dough Co. Pizza, also felt the effects of COVID and the absence of the Relays on his business.

“COVID cancelling the Drake Relays was a big hit to us,” he said. “That Friday and Saturday [of Relays] are some of our biggest days of the year, so we definitely felt an impact, especially as Covid has continued on.” 

Restaurants were not the only type of business impacted. Anne Mathey, owner of Lefty’s Live Music, knows the impact the Relays has on her business.

“The Drake Relays really gives us a bump for people coming in,” Mathey said. “Really, there are just more people walking around in between events looking for ways to spend not their money, but also their time. Not to mention when people rent out the space for parties, those rentals really kick up around the Relays.”

Vilmain also noted that COVID completely changed how their business usually operated.

“We really had to reassess how we were going to run our business,” she said. “The Drake Diner is typically a dine-in type restaurant and we weren’t used to having as many to-go orders. So, learning how to become a to-go business and really changing how we operated was huge.”

Things are looking different this year. The Relays are moving forward, though with some COVID restrictions and expected lower attendance. Athletes are coming back to compete, students are painting Painted Street and life is coming on campus. Local spots are hopeful for more business and are getting ready for what Relays could bring.

“This year, we are still keeping all the Covid precautions we already have in place, but also preparing for Relays like we always have,” Vilmain said. “This means hiring extra servers, kitchen staff, and fully opening our patio seating again. The patio is always a popular spot this time of year, but with COVID, it has become even more of a necessity.” 

Based on what the university has told him, Davis is looking forward to once again seeing more business during Drake Relays.

“Based on what Drake said, we are expecting an uptick in traffic. So, we are preparing to start being busy all day for Relays,” Davis said.

Mathey has already started to feel some normalcy come back to her business.

“These last few weekends we have really started to get our groove back,” Mathey said. “I mean for these next few months; all our Fridays and Saturdays are completely booked. Things are finally starting to feel more like normal.”

With the Drake Relays coming up, local businesses are ready to get back to some normalcy and excited for the athletes and fans to come back to the Blue Oval.

“Although things won’t be 100 percent completely the same, I’m ready for things to start coming back,” Davis said.

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