Philosophical about the 23 percent plunge in receipts off the prior winter season, business owners say things could have been worse.


Taxable retail sales from January 2008 to January 2009 are down across the board, according to the Utah State Tax Commission, with Hurricane, which is near Zion National Park, declining the most by $4 million or 32 percent. Sales in Salt Lake City fell by $32 million, or 8 percent. Clearfield sales declined the least.

The snow fell -- and so did business.

Receipts were off as much as 23 percent for the winter season throughout Utah's premier ski and snowboarding town.

January sales-tax receipts, compared with January 2008, were down by a higher percentage in Park City than in any other Utah city, save Hurricane in Washington County, according to a report by Salt Lake City-based consulting firm Bonneville Research.

That analysis, which does not include food and beverage sales, is based on data provided by the State Tax Commission, according to the firm's vice president, Jonathan Springmeyer.

When food and beverage sales are rolled in, overall retail business in Utah's premier ski town was down 18.8 percent, according to Bret Howser, Park City's budget officer.

Although the numbers for February and March aren't yet in, they are expected to be similar to January's decline, Howser said.

That's a big drop --- about $23 million in taxable sales for January, alone.

But it could have been a lot worse, coming as it did on the heels of the global financial crisis. At least that's the refrain heard around town from merchants, restaurateurs and hoteliers who hope the recession has bottomed out.

Most had seasons like that of Jan's Mountain Outfitters, where winter sales were off 20 percent or more, said Karl "Jake" Jacobson, a manager.

"But that's compared to last year, which was huge," he noted, referring to Park City's record 2007-08 ski season.

Park City has enjoyed one big winter-tourist season after another since the 2002 Olympics. The downturn this ski season is something that newer businesses here have never experienced. And some fared better than others.

Generally, shops depending on big-ticket items found themselves with a lot of leftover inventory. At Jan's and other ski shops, that means boots and skis.

On the other hand, sales of helmets, gloves and other weather-related items were on par, Jacobson noted.

"The foot traffic still came in," he said. "But the spending? They were buying what they needed -- not what they wanted."

Jan's and just about every other business in town pared back employee hours. Particularly hard-hit was the lodging industry and its employees, said Bill Malone, executive director of the Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Bureau.

"It was a tough winter for businesses in Park City," he said. "We were down 20 percent in visitation."

But the accessibility of Utah ski resorts, a good snow year and Park City's internationally known brand kept the season from tanking completely.

Among the things that hurt hotels and lodges, Malone explained, were cancellations by business groups that regularly book winter gatherings in Park City and Deer Valley. They bailed after financial giant AIG, which received federal bailout cash, made headlines for lavish getaways.

"Anyone who received [federal bailout] TARP funds chose to cancel," he said. "They moved to less-conspicuous venues, like Chicago or New York, that probably cost as much."

Nonetheless, Malone, like the municipality's Howser and others, is relieved the numbers aren't lower.

"Skier days aren't quite as impacted by consumer confidence as one might think," Howser said. "In a recession, people still ski."

Well, at least some people still ski.

"I wouldn't want to see it like this all the time," said Mike Lindbloom, the longtime proprietor of The Main Street Deli, who said his business was off some 10 percent. "But considering what's going on, it's hard to complain."

Small, well-established business, like the deli and the venerable Dolly's Bookstore across the street, fared relatively well because they offer affordable products that attract local clients as well as tourists, said Dolly's Liza Simpson.

"If we were down, we weren't down much. Maybe 5 percent," she said of the bookstore's sales.

Simpson chalks it up to residents and visitors opting for reasonably priced gifts this season, rather than big-ticket items offered in many Park City shops.

"But that doesn't mean there aren't businesses that are really suffering," she added. "We're counting now on our summer visitors, and they're not the big spenders."

csmart@sltrib.com

URL: http://www.sltrib.com/ci_12147553