Striding out of Dixon Hall around noon Friday, O’Neal carried his keys in one hand and a final bag of clothes in the other, and he didn’t have time to talk.
“Most people were out by eleven,” said O’Neal, a music education major, who was packed and ready to leave for Cedartown, Ga., and then Panama City.
O’Neal was among dozens of Jacksonville State University students who were still rushing to pack pants, shirts and Styrofoam coolers in their cars Friday afternoon, as classes let out for spring break. With rain clouds on the horizon, many packed up as soon as their final Friday class ended and pointed their cars toward the Gulf Coast.
Spring break is a big event for any college town, but has a particularly dramatic effect on Jacksonville, a city of about 12,000, where most jobs depend, directly or indirectly, on JSU’s 9,000-strong student body. The college shuts down almost completely for the break, closing dorms and giving most of the staff the week off.
“It gets pretty quiet around here,” said Patty Hobbs, director of communications for the university. Hobbs said she was headed for Destin, Fla. at the close of the workday. And she didn’t expect much traffic: Most students and some faculty, she said, leave as soon as their last Friday class ends, usually before noon.
Jacksonville City and Calhoun County Schools will also take spring break beginning Monday. While finding child care is usually a concern for parents, Jacksonville Schools Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell said it’s not a problem for many of the parents of Jacksonville’s 1,700 students.
“Since the university is off, too, a lot of people take a family vacation,” he said.
Some have found themselves taking time off whether they like it or not.
Jill Waters, owner of Jillybean’s Cupcakes on the town square, said she tried to buck the conventional wisdom by staying open over the Christmas break. She didn’t make any money.
“Basically, I was giving away cupcakes,” she said.
For spring break, Waters said, she’s going to close — like most shops on the square — and take her kids to Orlando. Walt Disney World on a high-traffic week is not her idea of fun, but Waters said there’s nothing to keep her open.
“Jacksonville is a town of transplants,” she said. “There are people from Piedmont or Pleasant Valley who come ‘to town’ to shop, but there aren’t enough of them.”
Two doors down from Jillybean’s, Micah McNair was serving some of his last pre-break customers at Java Jolt. Over spring break, local residents will have to get their caffeine elsewhere.
“If we did stay open, there wouldn’t be anyone to work here,” said McNair, a Java Jolt employee who is studying photography at JSU. “Most of the employees are students.”
Closer to campus, Jacksonville Tanning was doing a brisk business.
“I’ve had 400 customers a day for the past week,” said Patrick Ryan, owner of the tanning salon. The week before spring break is his peak season, Ryan said, but demand slackens only a little during the break. He said he’ll be open through the break.
“I take the Walmart approach,” Ryan said. “High volume through low prices.”
While students rushed to pack, the college radio station set a vacation-like tone, playing a collection of laid-back oldies. There’s going to be a heartache tonight, the Eagles sang. Just hop on the bus, Gus, crooned Paul Simon, no need to discuss much.
Chase Stanford, a psychology student from Birmingham, enjoyed a smoke on the steps of Dixon Hall while other students hauled luggage down to their cars. He had to leave: The dorm was scheduled to close Friday night, and friends were expecting him in Panama City. But he was taking his time.
“I guess I’ll make it,” he said. “I won’t be here tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.