Ho-Hum: La Nina, skier numbers don’t blow away economic doldrums | SkyHiNews.com

Ho-Hum: La Nina, skier numbers don’t blow away economic doldrums

Reid Armstrong
Grand County, CO Colorado
Skiers are reflected in a puddle of water at the base of Winter Park Resort on Thursday. The ski area's final day of the season will be on Sunday. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

WINTER PARK – Since snow started falling in October, it has hardly relented. This third week of April alone, 22 inches of snow has graced the slopes at Winter Park Resort.

Thanks to La Nina, the ski area is reporting season totals of more than 375 inches, nearly 90 inches more than last year’s average and better than the 10-year average.

Skier numbers at Winter Park were up overall from last year and several events this season, including the NASTAR Nationals, March 24-27, and the U.S. Alpine Championships, March 30-April 3, brought large groups to the area.

The early season – Thanksgiving weekend in particular – kicked off with a bang, thanks to all the early snow. The Ski Free promotion, a partnership between Winter Park Resort and the Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce, also boosted early-season skier visits.

The highest skier visit days came January 15-16 (Martin Luther King weekend) with the 36th Annual Wells Fargo Cup weekend March 5-6 following a close second.

President’s Day weekend, Feb. 19-20, also brought large crowds to the area with J3 qualifiers for the competition center and 11 inches of snow dumping on Friday.

Yet, tourism-dependent retailers and restaurants are looking at revenue numbers that have remained flat or fallen off from 2010.

The town finance director in Winter Park is reporting a 3-percent dip in sales tax revenues for January and February, and Fraser is reporting an 8- to 12-percent dip, which indicated that people aren’t even grocery shopping in town as much.

Almost everyone in the tourism-based industry seems to be scratching their heads over this, offering theories about why things aren’t as good as they seem. Nearly 20 businesses in Winter Park and Fraser were polled for this story.

One theory is that early season snow brought everyone out earlier in the season and that by March, warm and dry conditions on the Front Range kept people out of the mountains.

Another theory blames Easter, which was so late this year that many school districts around the country scheduled spring breaks at unusual times, scattering them across the spring.

The Northeast had plenty of snow this year, which may have kept those folks home, and Californians also seemed scarce in Colorado’s high country this winter. Most of the region’s winter visitors came from the Midwest – Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma – and Texas, within driving distance.

Kid groups and family events saved the end of the season, according to most retailers. Among these were large student groups from the United Kingdom and the Winter Park Ski Music Festival, which brought young musical groups (choirs and bands) from across the country during the first few weeks of April.

The new Private Lesson Center opened in December 2010, garnering industry-wide attention and bringing an increase in private lessons over previous years. The new Backcountry Awareness Weekend and Ski/Snowboard Demo weekends were also successful and will continue next season, as was the Oakley Women’s Progression Sessions, a woman-only terrain park weekend.

Food and Beverage Director John Keck said that successful events for the resort’s restaurants included: free Mini Rail Jams by Doc’s every Friday night, Mardi Gras in The Village at Winter Park, the new Poker Runs at Derailer Bar and St. Patrick’s Day parties in the Village Plaza and, a local’s favorite, the Club Car celebration of Mary Jane’s birthday.

Winter Park’s Rental and Retail Director Paul Mutch said his retail numbers finished the season ahead of last year. Ski and accessories sales were both strong due to the great snow conditions, he said. Rentals, on the other hand, were flat compared with last year. The resort’s custom delivery service was a huge hit, especially with families.

In town, ski shops held their own this winter. Ski rentals and apparel are one of the few things, in addition to lodging and lift tickets, that many visitors have to spend money on when they take a ski vacation, and they often shop the deals among the town’s various outlets.

Jim Peterson, manager of Christy Sports, said his store in Cooper Creek Square was dead even on sales but up over last year on profit due to better budgeting and planning by staff.

Rachel Rannow, assistant manager of Ski Depot in Winter Park Plaza, said they finished the year a little better than last year and have stayed busy through the spring with tunes and retail sales.

Shawn Carr, a veteran Powder Tools employee, said the winter was great overall for the shop but that things have definitely slowed down this spring. A big air competition at the resort April 16 brought a steady stream of people into the shop in the afternoon and sales were great, he said.

Icebox Mountain Sports, which really has a corner on the telemark, cross-country and backcountry ski market, stayed busy all winter, according to employee Marie-Ange. And, although things have slowed down considerably, people will continue to come in for biking and camping gear during the shoulder season.

Business elsewhere in Winter Park Plaza seemed to pick up this year. Employee accounts from Rocky Mountain Roastery, Plaza Liquors and Winter Park Salon all indicate that this season was at least a little bit better than the last.

For the businesses that sell art and gifts, however, things were not as good as this season as shopkeepers had hoped. While the weeks leading up to Christmas were great, sales fell off dramatically in January and never came back.

Silver Creek owner Marc Ofsowitz, who is in his third year of business in the Village at Winter Park, said he has more than a decade of resort retail experience and has never seen the retail climate as bad as it now. Shoppers will walk several feet through his door, take one look at the displays of jewelry, designer outdoor wear and Colorado hand-crafted gift items, and turn around and walk back out.

“People think the stuff looks expensive,” he said. “But, it’s really not.”

Carolyn Bailey, owner Nest in Cooper Creek Square, also said she’s been struggling this spring. December and February were good, she said, but March and April have been very quiet.

Cheryl Key at Seven Sisters, a specialty clothing shop that relies on tourists, said her store probably won’t survive mud season.

Jolita Peterson who has tended shop at Peezie Marie in Cooper Creek Square for the past four years said things were good before Christmas but have been unusually slow this spring. Even Texas week and Band Week didn’t bring in as many shoppers as previous years.

On the other hand, Be … Boutique, which is in its sixth year of business in Cooper Creek Square, had its best Christmas season ever, said owner Gosia Rafacz. Rafacz added that 80 percent of her business is local and repeat Denver-based customers, and while the spring has been a little slower than normal with spring break visitors, her loyal customer base has kept business going.

Back at the Village at Winter Park, Susie Walsh manager of Trails End Mercantile said the grocery side of the business, which has been open since 2000, keeps her busy through events like Nationals and NASTAR.

“I didn’t know the demographics of Nationals,” she said. “It wasn’t the Lindsay Vonns that made a difference. It was a lot of families here to support their kids.”

The band kids and Brit groups saved April, she added. “Otherwise it would have been dead.”

Cassi Selders, manager of Shirt off My Back (in her third season at the resort), agreed that the spring season has been “funky,” but overall it was a good season, up from last year. Texas and the other Midwestern spring breaks are key for the T-shirt/apparel shops.

Sharon Gulden at Goody’s in the Village said the kids groups are a real boon to her business. They order milk shakes and shaved ice and play Guitar Hero at night or buy s’more kits to roast by the fire pit in front of her shop. The race weekends were good for her shop too. She said she was amazed by the tables full of big-name alpine racers eating breakfast in her shop.

Back in town, restaurants like Pearl Dragon and Star of India didn’t benefit so much from the spring influx of kids and Midwesterners. Both restaurants saw business die down months ago. And while the rest of the winter was good, said Lucky Singh of Star of India, it wasn’t as good as last year.

Melinda Besse, owner of Powder Addiction and Grand Adventures, said the Sno-Cat tours definitely had a better year thanks to the snow conditions. This is only their second year in business and word is getting out she said.

But, Besse added, spring break felt shorter than in years past, and Grand Adventures’ snowmobile tours finished the season flat or a little down from last year. It helped that the season started early and ended late, Besse said, and the addition of Snow Scoots for kids helped.

“The snowmobile business died off earlier than we thought,” she said.

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