NEWS

Winter Park economy shows improvement during first quarter

Date: May. 25th, 2010
Contact: Reid Armstrong

WINTER PARK — The Town of Winter Park has just marked its fourth-best March in history, based on collections of sales, lodging and accommodations taxes.

“I think its positive,” said Winter Park finance director Bill Wengert. “We're seeing a little bit of an uptick here this year. April is looking like it will be a decent month as well.”

That may bring pause to demoralized business owners who have seen sales slashed by the weakening economy in the past few years.

Sure, the historical line graph of tax collections nosedives after 2007 like a beginner skier on Drunken Frenchmen, but first quarter results from 2010 show the economy at least stabilizing, if not slightly improving. And, as Wengert points out, revenue numbers are still well above $3.3 million mark where they sat in 2003-2004.

Tax collections are one of the town's leading economic indicators, although Wengert warns they must be taken with a grain of salt. Numbers can be easily skewed, especially in a small town, by late filers. Still, it's one of the primary tools for gaining an overall picture of the economy's health, Wengert added.

Last year may have felt like one of the worst years on record for businesses in Winter Park, but it was actually one of the best years the town has ever seen, Wengert said. And 2010 is already shaping up to be a better year than 2009 on some fronts.

Sales increase
Overall, sales tax revenues were up nearly 5 percent in March with the majority of the increase taking place downtown as opposed to the ski area.

In the downtown region, sales, lodging and accommodation tax collections increased by 12 percent this quarter over the same period last year.

March retail sales downtown were up 32.5 percent from March 2009 and, year-to-date, have increased 24.3 percent over the previous year.

“There was a definite uptick in many retail establishments, and that was obviously positive,” Wengert said.

What surprised Wengert, however, is how well downtown businesses did this quarter compared to the ski area and Old Town.

Downtown sales, lodging and accommodation tax collections were up by 12 percent this quarter over the same period last year while collections from the ski area and Old Town dropped another 4.8 percent.

Retail collections for the ski area and Old Town were down 10.7 percent, possibly due to a few shops closing in Old Town last year and a couple late filers, Wengert said.

Total retail collections are still down nearly 22 percent from their peak in 2008.

Lodging and accommodations tax collections were also on the rise last quarter. Year-to-date, lodging revenues from the downtown area had improved by 20 percent over the last year. The ski area lodging taxes remained flat for the quarter but were saved by a 10 percent increase in March.

Wengert attributes some of the lodging increase to more “Vacation Rentals By Owner” or VRBOs.

“We saw an increase in reports from people renting out their houses that have never rented them out before,” Wengert said.

Filers in the restaurant sector “held their own,” Wengert said, “even when it was so down.”

Concerted effort
Wengert credits the town's success to the huge efforts being made by businesses, the resort and the chamber of commerce to bring people into town.

While nobody is calling this a banner year, Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce Director Catherine Ross agreed that things are looking more positive and businesses saw a strong finish to the ski season.

“Everybody stepped up their efforts as a community and stayed competitive,” Ross said. “We had smart business owners that were aggressive and marketed themselves really well. We had people really step up and work with us. They had to work harder for every reservation, every sale, and it shows.”

One of the biggest successes of the season, everyone seems to agree, was the chamber's Ski Free campaign.

A partnership among Winter Park Resort and The Town of Winter Park and the Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce, the program was offered during early and late season and involved many lodging partners throughout the valley.

“Ski Free was a wildly successful promotion, increasing both skier visitation and lodging revenue ” said Winter Park Resort communications manager Mistalynn Lee.”

The program resulted in bookings across the valley, Ross added, and all the partners are gearing up already to repeat the campaign next season.

Events help
Several new events this year also helped boost tourism, Ross and Lee agreed.

The Ski Industry of America's on-snow demo, in its inaugural year in Colorado, proved to be extremely successful in Denver, Winter Park and Grand County, increasing tourism and revenue locally and for the state of Colorado, Lee said. The demo was in town on a Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 1-2 after a weekend in Denver.

Another large group, the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), came to the area Feb. 27-March 6. They held their annual mini-summit (which travels to different resorts each season) and Winter Park hosted this group for the first time at Winter Park in 2010.

“It helped that there were 16 inches of fresh snow during their visit, making for very happy guests,” Lee said.

NASTAR National Championships March 24-28 brought a lot of new attendees to Winter Park, most of whom traveled to the area from the East Coast and Midwest, resulting in lodging revenue for the entire community, Lee said.

Snow this season had a clear impact on visitors to the ski area.

“Snow conditions are the biggest driver of visitation,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA.

“After an encouraging start to the season, visitation slowed in January as did the snowfall across a large part of the state. Drier conditions for the first month of the year gave way to plentiful storms in February. Skiers and riders took advantage of the mid-season conditions with inspiration from the Winter Olympics and kept resorts busy over the President's Day holiday weekend,” Mills said.

Colorado Ski Country reported that its 22 member ski areas saw a small dip in skier visitation for the second period of the 2009-10 season. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 28 skier visits were down 4 percent during the second period, and off by 2 percent season-to-date compared to the same time last season, the report said.

“All things considered, including lower than average snow conditions and the slowly recovering economy, (Winter Park's) skier visits were similar to previous seasons,” Lee said.

The resort's best weekend was Feb. 19-21. Lee attributes that to two major conditions: the Wells Fargo Cup, benefiting National Sports Center for the Disabled, and significant snowfall (the resort received 23 inches in that week alone).

As any skier knows, two ingredients are essential for the perfect day on the mountain: sunny weather and fresh snowfall. Events aside, four spring days brought skiers in droves to Winter Park this season: March 13 was a beautiful sunny day at the resort with 8 inches of powder overnight, Lee said; March 29 was a busy Monday, sunny with 8.5 inches of new snow; April 7 was a big Wednesday with 10 inches of fresh snow; and, the weekend of April 10-11 was beautiful with sunny days following 10 inches of snow.

Despite all that, the season came with a lot of stress for business owners, Ross said: “Even with the big groups, nothing came in until last minute. At the very last minute people called and made bookings. It's a highly stressful situation to be in. Business owners don't know what's coming. There's some emotional exhaustion now.”

The chamber is working to build off the momentum created by the ski free program in April and is looking at doing some “play free” and “ride free” campaigns this summer, with an emphasis on the area's mountain biking opportunities, Ross said. The chamber will also offer more free concerts and events this summer to continue to bring people to the area and drive business through the doors of local shops and restaurants.

“We hope things stay on this track but it is probably too early to tell,” Wengert said.