Businesses are happy just to get the season finished | AspenTimes.com

Businesses are happy just to get the season finished

More evidence of Aspen’s dismal economic performance rolled in yesterday when the latest city sales report showed business dropped 7.3 percent in February.

Retail sales dropped sharply in the month compared to last year for Aspen’s biggest economic engines.

Tourist accommodations saw sales fall 3.7 percent.

Restaurants and bars sagged by 6.2 percent.

Sales by sports equipment and clothing stores were off 8.3 percent while regular clothing stores experienced a similar loss.

Even boutiques and liquor stores – bastions of economic strength – suffered through a slower February 2002. Special retail sales dropped 1.2 percent. Liquor sales were drained by 16.3 percent.

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Only T-shirt shops managed to scratch out a gain for the month. Their sales were up 6.4 percent.

For January and February combined, sales were down 6.4 percent compared to the same months in 2001.

Snowmass Village is still working on its February sales tax report. Its sales in January were down 3.4 percent. December sales in the village were off by 11 percent.

Some retailers predicted that a record number of businesses will fold there at season’s end.

The only bright light this winter is that the decline in business isn’t as bad as some tourism officials feared. Expectations were lowered after Sept. 11 and by the sagging national economy.

“If you had asked anybody [before the season] if they’d be happy with a minus 10, you’d get a resounding ‘yes,'” said John Norton, Aspen Skiing Co. chief operating officer.

A strong March helped make the Skico’s season more respectable. Destination business – from customers outside the valley buying lift tickets – is down about 4 percent from last season, said Norton.

He didn’t know yet how overall skier and rider visits will compare when local residents’ season ski pass use is calculated.

Business on Aspen Mountain is flat compared to last season, according to Norton. Snowmass is down 6 percent. Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk were off a combined 4 percent.

Norton said January business was better for the town because of ESPN’s X Games, which the Skico hosted at Buttermilk. The event didn’t necessarily draw skiers and riders, but it did draw spectators to town, he said.

February flopped but March turned out to be strong, according to Norton.

“We’re on a roll right now,” he said. “The last two weeks were super strong.”

That could mean a good end for an otherwise dismal year for tourist accommodations – the largest retail sector of Aspen’s economy.

Reports filed by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association show that occupancy reported by members was down from 32 to 24 percent in November this winter, and from 57 to 48 percent in December.

January improved from 67 to 70 percent but February sagged from 76 to 72 percent. No statistics for March were available Wednesday.

Occupancy reports tell only part of the story. Many hotels, lodges and other tourist accommodations had to drop their prices to fill their beds. Customers shopped like never before for bargains.

“Everybody did last-minute bookings,” said the manager of one lodging property. “They most likely got a better deal.”

Some customers nailed down their reservations only seven to 10 days before traveling – a short period unheard of only a few seasons ago. It’s a trend that may be here to stay.

As the cold weather comes to an end, real estate agents hope their business heats up. First quarter sales statistics aren’t available yet from the Aspen Board of Realtors, but some observers said the period followed the same slow trend as during the last half of 2001.

Sales volume by Aspen Board of Realtors members was down 33 percent in 2001 compared to 2000.

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