Mayor Derek Slaughter is working from home today. You can hear his daughter through the phone, playing with her computer, perhaps between online learning sessions. It’s another unusual Tuesday in a country increasingly accustomed to the abnormal.
As mayor, Slaughter spends his time back and forth between home and City Hall. When not taking calls from his constituents, he is meeting with other lawmakers via Zoom, and assembling a task force to combat the economic and social effects of COVID-19 on the city he has sworn to serve: Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Slaughter, like us all, is just trying to figure out the new normal. In our call, I asked him to describe the city to someone, like me, who had never been there before.
“It sounds cliché, but Williamsport has a little bit of everything,” he says — a vibrant arts community, fine dining, shops, hotels, and nearby nature trails.
The central Pennsylvania city, situated on the West Branch Susquehanna River, is home to 30,000 residents. In a past life, way back in the 19th century, Williamsport was the lumber capital of the world. Now, there is one annual event that separates it from every other city across the country. The globe, even.
The Little League World Series.
“Williamsport,” says Slaughter, “is probably the most famous little city in the world.”
Little League was founded there in 1939. Eight years later, in 1947, the city hosted its first Little League baseball championship. The local team beat nearby Lock Haven, 16-7. The event went international in 1952, when a squad from Montreal participated. In 1963, ABC started broadcasting the championship game between the top American team and the top international team. Today, the finals format still holds but the broadcast rights have expanded. Now, every Little League World Series game can be seen on the ESPN family of networks.
Little League is currently the largest organized youth sports organization in the world. The Little League World Series hosts 16 teams — eight from the U.S., and eight from around the world. The international event brings athletes, families, and fans, to this small Pennsylvania city for 11 days each August.
Williamsport has been home to the Little League World Series through its entire 73-year history. This year — for the first time ever — it was canceled.
The move to shut down the series, in the wake of COVID-19, unquestionably brings heartbreak to 12-year-old boys and girls around the world. Kids who may not be able to play at all through the spring and summer.
For a small city known for hosting a big, international event each and every year, the cancellation means something else: economic anxiety.
“In light of everything that’s going on,” says Slaughter, Little League made “the right decision.” The idea of athletes, families, and fans traveling to Williamsport from all over the world is not something health officials, nor most parents, could possibly get behind. But the decision comes with consequences.
The Little League World Series adds tens of millions of dollars to the local economy each year, according to Slaughter.
“Obviously, we are not going to make up $35 to $40 million from the economic impact that the World Series has on our area,” says Slaughter. “Now, more than ever, we have to support our business and industry.”
“It’s absolutely devastating for our community,” says Joanna Morrone, who operates the Old Corner Restaurant in Downtown Williamsport. During the pandemic, she’s focused on keeping her place running day in and day out — but she knows the World Series cancelation will come with a heavy price.
“Especially for the hospitality industry,” she says.
Like most restaurants across the country, the Old Corner is struggling to generate revenue. But beyond the economic concerns, Morrone says she will miss meeting new people and making new friends this August.
“It’s very sad on a personal note as well,” she says. “Each restaurant and hotel has developed friendships with the people who come to the city year after year. We won’t get to see them this year. We look forward to that every year.”
Just across the street from the Little League complex in South Williamsport sits the Red Roof Inn. Its general manager, Nilesh Patel, has been running the place since 2017.
Every August, the 100-room hotel sellsis sold out — months in advance — for the Little League World Series. And every year, he houses the entire Japanese team and their families.
“[Not having the LLWS is a] huge loss,” Patel says, for him and his business.
“We make around $250,000 in business, just that month alone. Most of that is during the 10 or 12 days.”
Patel knows this year will be different. But by 2021, he hopes Little Leaguers return to Williamsport and the Red Roof Inn.
Jason Fink, President of the Williamsport/Lycoming County Chamber of Commerce, worries about the hotels in the area. They have visitors throughout the year, but rely heavily on the influx of tourists who come into town for baseball.
“During the Little League World Series, that is when we see a major tourism uptick,” says Fink. “You’re looking at somewhere between 70 to 75,000 unique visitors that come in during those 11 days.”
That’s more than double the city’s population.
And empty hotels lead to empty restaurants, another concern of Fink’s.
“I’ve already talked to a restaurant two weeks ago,” he says. “I stopped in to pick up a gift card because I wanted to do a little promotion. They wouldn’t sell me the gift card because they said they were going to close that night and they didn’t know if they were going to reopen.”
Williamsport is small, but it is proud to call itself “international” for a few weeks each year.
“You get a chance to meet people from all over the world,” says Fink. “And the people that live here appreciate what we have, and are so welcoming to those who come into our community.”
Of course, Williamsport — and the rest of the world — are losing a lot more than baseball this year. Americans are increasingly jobless, coronavirus cases are growing, and the global death toll from the pandemic recently passed 250,000 people. In Lycoming County, specifically, dozens have contracted the virus, and at least four have died.
Baseball won’t cure Williamsport, and it certainly won’t save the country.
But no matter how anxious they seem today, the folks I spoke to look forward to the next Little League World Series, whenever that may be.
“We’re missing something right now that’s been part of our culture, and I don’t know when we’re going to be through all this. That’s not my world,” says Fink, a diehard sports fan.
But if there is anything he hopes for in the new world — one without the pandemic — it is that people might reinvent how they spend their time.
“I hope it actually gets people more incentive to want to go do things with their family, with their friends, to be able to experience life.”
Perhaps even experience a baseball game.
We’re months away from knowing the true economic toll on Williamsport. For now, Slaughter is focused on the city’s recovery, and confident that baseball will return. Eventually.
“I am amazingly grateful for the efforts of all of our citizens and businesses and industry up until this point. It’s because of all of our collective efforts that we were able to be one of the first counties to start to gradually open back up.”
Of course, the Little League baseball complex will remain closed this year. But, whenever the time comes for children to start playing ball again, Williamsport will be waiting, and so will its people.
“For us to keep making progress we have to continue to work together,” says Slaughter. “We’ll do our best to support each other and weather this storm.”