Basalt economy still a mixed bag | AspenTimes.com

Basalt economy still a mixed bag

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

BASALT – Basalt sales tax revenues indicate that the town’s economy is slowly on the mend, but business operators say it remains a mixed bag more than three years after the recession hit.

The October sales tax report shows revenues nudged up 2.37 percent over October 2010. For the town’s fiscal year-to-date through October, sales tax revenues are up a humble 1.25 percent over the same period in fiscal year 2010.

Town officials will take any increase they can get after a tough three years. Sales tax collections have shown modest increases for five consecutive months, said Judi Tippetts, town finance director. That’s the first lengthy period of growth since the first half of 2008.

Several businesses said they experienced growth in late summer and fall, but they still remain cautious about the long-term outlook.

“We are probably up over the last year,” said Sandy Wirkler, manager and buyer for Midland Clothing in Basalt. Business has been picking up steadily rather than in a big surge, she said.

“It’s not like we’ve been going gangbusters,” Wirkler said.

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Midland Clothing’s sales history this year reflects the pattern of the town’s sales tax revenues – business picked up in late summer and carried into fall. Business typically tails off in fall, Wirkler said, but it inexplicably stayed busy this year.

Midland Clothing has been trying to drive business since the recession hit by lowering its price point and “carrying lines that are still great but more affordable,” Wirkler said. She believes that customers have responded.

Josh Streblow, manager of Bristlecone Sports in Basalt, said business at the sporting goods store was up between 3 and 10 percent each month from August into late November, then it cooled off. The outdoor clothing and equipment industry as a whole enjoyed a strong late summer and fall, he said.

The lack of snow so far this winter took a bit of wind from the sails since Thanksgiving, Streblow said. He hopes snow will revive sales but acknowledged it’s tough to forecast economic activity right now.

“It’s a mixed bag just because there isn’t a strong trend,” Streblow said.

Sporting retail stores in Basalt have experienced a 12.39 percent boost in sales so far in 2011 compared to the same period in 2010, the town’s sales tax revenue report showed. The stores in that category produced $123,622 in sales tax revenues through October compared to $109,989 over the same period the prior year.

General retail stores – the mom-and-pop shops – haven’t fared so well. Sales are down 7.5 percent overall for stores in that category. General retail has produced $438,238 in sales tax revenues through October compared to $473,802.

The restaurant industry has stalled. Sales tax collections by restaurants with bars is flat with growth of just 0.11 percent. Restaurants with bars have produced $280,856 in sales tax revenues so far this year.

Bernard Moffroid, owner of Cafe Bernard, said business has been “pretty dismal” at times over the last year.

“It’s been so erratic,” he said.

Breakfasts and lunches are down even from levels in 2009 and 2010. Dinner business is inconsistent, he said.

People don’t appear to be eating out as much as they did prior to the recession, according to Moffroid. Regular customers he used to see every week are now appearing every three weeks or so. That’s got Moffroid hustling for business. He is normally closed on Monday, but he was open this week to host the Christmas party of a local architectural firm.

The big sales tax producers for Basalt are the grocery stores. Sales tax reports show they are bouncing back, but not to pre-recession levels. The retail food category was up 2.5 percent in October and is up 2.75 percent for the year. So far in 2011, grocery stores have produced $1.23 million in sales tax revenues compared to $1.20 million at the same point the prior year.

Moffroid said people still have to eat. They just might not be eating out as often. The longtime Basalt businessman said he thinks many businesses are still facing tough times, not just restaurants.

“The only stores that are doing anything is thrift stores,” Moffroid said.

Brenda McCartney, owner of Heirlooms, said business is good indeed.

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” she said.

The consignment store on Midland Avenue has remained busy throughout the recession. Consignments are up.

“Everybody’s trying to make a buck,” McCartney said.

And the number of people making purchases is up. The tough economic times have opened more shoppers’ eyes to the possibilities.

“We created a whole new way of shopping,” McCartney said. She’s hearing more people ask themselves, “Why didn’t I shop secondhand before?”

Bennett Bramson, president of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said Basalt businesses are still in recovery mode.

“I think overall business is still tough,” he said.

Bramson believes those that are actively trying to boost their business are faring best. Too often, people wait to see what actions somebody else will take. In Basalt’s case, businesses that participated in the Basalt Arts and Social Happenings (BASH) events this summer and fall saw the effort pay off, Bramson said.

One of the primary BASH events was Second Saturday parties, with block parties on the main street. The events “have gotten people’s attention,” Bramson said. Some businesses capitalized by staying open later, advertising specials and displaying merchandise outside, he said.

A survey of businesses show many want to resume BASH events in the warm weather months, so Bramson remains stoked about that program.

Even with Basalt’s modest recovery, sales levels lag well behind the pre-recession boom years of 2007 and 2008, when sales tax revenues soared to $3.52 million and $3.81 million, respectively.

Since the recession, the annual revenues have hovered around $3.2 million. This year will be no exception.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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