At the most recent regular Town Council meeting May 4, several Snowmass merchants put their situations bluntly to village officials: Local businesses need help and guidance on how to persevere through the COVID-19 crisis if they’re going to survive. And they need it now.
“If we don’t work together, we’re going to end up with a lot of empty spaces up here and we’re going to spiral in the wrong direction,” said Reed Lewis, owner of the Daly Bottle Shop, Grain Fine Food and 81615, to council. “I think it’s going to take all of us working together to make something happen, but I think we need to be realistic.”
For local merchants like Lewis, losing the last few weeks of March and early April — which are often some of the most fruitful of the season — due to the early closure of Colorado ski areas and spread of COVID-19 to Pitkin County was a major financial blow and has left many businesses barely hanging on.
Since then, some Snowmass restaurants and stores have been able to maintain limited operations in April and May, offering online, takeout or restricted in-person services only. However, most merchants haven’t been able to stay open at all due to public health requirements and the COVID-19 crisis, which aligns with most village offseason business plans but leaves a cloud of uncertainty over the summer months ahead.
Lewis and a handful of other merchants have expressed the need for the business community to collaborate with town officials about what the path to reopening for the summer could look like.
Starting as early as this week, that collaboration will begin through the mayor’s Task Force for Economic Recovery, a group of finance experts, merchants and town officials appointed by Mayor Markey Butler to identify strategies and significant but realistic actions the town can take to help Snowmass businesses “survive and thrive” through the pandemic.
“I was so, so satisfied when I heard a round of ‘yes, I am so honored to serve and I want to do whatever I can to help our businesses and all of our community.’ That was music to my ears,” Butler said of appointing the task force, which is made up of 10 people. “I look forward to it and I know everyone looks forward to their recommendations and strategies.”
Up until last week, Pitkin County merchants and business owners had little knowledge about when they may be able to resume semi-normal, in-person operations.
But at the Pitkin County Board of Health meeting May 7, which Butler chairs, the board decided to pursue opening county restaurants at one-third capacity as early as May 20. The board also is looking to allow hotels and lodges to begin hosting guests May 28, as reported in The Aspen Times.
While these dates aren’t set in stone, they do provide some guidance for county business owners on what to expect and when.
“It’s important for us to get open even with restrictions so we can train our staff and get the new systems in place,” said Wendy Harris, owner of the New Belgium Ranger Station in Snowmass, during a phone interview.
Since Harris was forced to close the Ranger Station a few weeks early in mid-March, she said she has listened in on all of the county public health meetings, along with weekly meetings with other county business owners, to keep a pulse on the pandemic and how it will continue to impact the local economy.
“It’s complicated, to say the least,” Harris said of trying to navigate the best next steps as a business owner and of staying up-to-date with the constantly changing public health information.
While the process is multi-faceted and Harris understands why it’s important to carry out a slow, phased reopening, she also feels that getting county restaurants open specifically is a safer step than many people may realize.
Restaurant staff has to constantly wash their hands, sanitize, track food temperatures and uphold stringent cleanliness standards, Harris said, making them an experienced group to successfully reopen with stricter health guidelines.
“Our advantage is our education and background on sanitization, hand washing and food safety. We’re pros at it,” Harris said. “These are things we already do and do well, we just need time to make whatever adjustments are required for health and safety but we can make that shift easily … and if we do it properly, we can help with the contact tracing and tracking, too.”
Harris will serve on the mayor’s economic recovery task force, which is set to meet as early as this week. She feels timing is imperative and that detailed efforts to support Snowmass businesses in reopening need to be put in place sooner rather than later.
“We have to at least try and provide a safe environment and we can’t do that if we don’t start to open things up,” Harris said.
According to town documents, the mayor’s economic recovery task force will look at various incentives and initiatives the town can help implement to ensure Snowmass businesses “survive and thrive” for the long-term.
Some specific ideas the task force will evaluate and pursue early on include adapting the liquor license process to allow restaurants to serve food and alcohol in larger outside areas (helping address social distancing requirements among larger groups of people); creating a revolving loan fund for businesses; and purchasing things like hand-sanitizing stations and thermal-scanning devices that can go in various businesses.
On May 12, town staff already got the ball rolling with potential changes to the liquor license process, which involves local and state government approvals, by talking with state officials about whether local license area expansions would even be possible and allowed at the state level.
Travis Elliott, assistant town manager, said state officials are working to put in place an expedited temporary modification process that would allow for liquor license area expansions and rely on local governments to implement and enforce.
None of the details are finalized and restaurants have to be given the go ahead to reopen before anything else, Elliott emphasized, but said having this background on what the state is working toward will help better inform the Snowmass task force’s discussions.
Elliott also said the town is working with county public health officials to create a website that helps business owners navigate the new public health orders, and recognizes the critical economic importance of the local business community in Snowmass especially.
“It’s kind of impossible to be successful without them,” Elliott said of Snowmass businesses and lodging groups. “It’s going to take the entire community to rebound and recover and we (the town) certainly play a part in that.”
SUPPORTING LOCAL BUSINESS
Outside of the mayor’s task force, many other stakeholders are pitching in to support local businesses and brainstorm ways to ensure the entire community has a safe, sustainable summer season.
A key driver of the Snowmass economy is tourism and bringing visitors into the village, as explained by Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism. But because restrictions on gathering sizes (outside and inside) are likely to be in place throughout the summer, Abello said her staff is working to re-imagine many of the town’s activations and staple events.
“We are regrouping and trying to figure out what kinds of activations we can have on a regular basis to support businesses and bring folks here,” Abello said. “Whatever we do is going to be in full compliance with the letter and spirit of the law.”
For example, Abello said the town’s free Thursday night concert series will not take place “as locals know and love it” in front of the big stage on Fanny Hill this year. However, Snowmass Tourism is determined to keep free music a part of the summer schedule each Thursday, but most likely as smaller, more spread-out activations.
Snowmass Tourism is also working to re-imagine larger events like the Snowmass Balloon Festival and how it can still take place in a safe, social-distanced way, Abello said.
“Our goal has always been to support local businesses, locals and visitors,” Abello said of Snowmass Tourism. “We have a lot of fun ideas but it’s going to come down to how we can truly host activations in the public health order of the moment.”
Beyond town government support, village landlords at the Snowmass Center, Base Village and the Snowmass Village Mall are also working to be flexible with their tenants, in some cases even helping them secure state and federal financial support, to ensure they can make it through the pandemic.
The main landlords in all three of these village nodes — Jordan Sarick of Eastwood Developments, Andy Gunion of East West Partners, and Dwayne Romero of the Romero Group — will all be on the mayor’s economic recovery task force and said they all look forward to the safe and sustainable reopening of businesses this summer.
“Losing the last part of ski season was a huge blow to all local businesses. The pandemic essentially threw everything into off-season mode a month or so early, causing everyone to miss out on critical spring break cash flow,” Gunion said via email.
“However we’re all looking forward now and are focused on what reopening for the summer season may look like.”
But for many merchants, perhaps the most vital support needed to survive and thrive through the COVID-19 crisis is that of Snowmass residents. By shopping locally and tipping a little extra when ordering carry out or delivery, residents can ensure their dollars stay in Snowmass Village.
“It’s important to be cognizant of where your money goes,” said Andrew Wickes, who helps run his family’s longtime village store, Sundance Liquor and Gifts. “Consumers may save a buck or two if they go elsewhere but they’re not putting their money back to the local work force and economy.”
Over the past two months, Sundance has been able to keep its doors open and hasn’t experienced as hard of a hit as other businesses in town, Wickes said.
He credits the ability of the liquor, pharmacy and gift store to persevere to the support of Snowmass residents who choose to buy in town versus in Aspen or downvalley.
Wickes said in the coming months, Sundance plans to roll out incentives for residents to continue to shop locally, including wine discounts and shifting store inventory to include more pandemic- and social-distancing-relevant items.
He said he hopes the business community and greater community at large can work more in tandem to support one another during this difficult and uncertain time.
“I know it can be cheaper to shop online, but in the end when you shop local you help employ locals and add to the local tax dollars,” Wickes said. “It’s one big magical feedback loop that relies on the collaborative effort of all locals.”