Friday, December 26, 2008

Ski shops feeling edgy

Slow start to ski season has some crossing their fingers


By EXPRESS STAFF

Baird Gourlay, one of three owners of PKs Ski and Sports in Ketchum, has yet to need the help of a full staff due to a slow start to the winter season. Part time employees at area ski shops have found few hours to work behind the tuning bench so far, but hope the holidays ad more snow will mean regular work for the next few months. Photo by David N. Seelig

Walking into PK's Ski and Sports rental and tuning shop on Leadville Avenue the week before Christmas, it was immediately noticeable that this is not the usual start to a winter season in Sun Valley.

In the "pit," the area behind the desk traditionally haunted by five or so young employees, stood Baird Gourlay, one of the three owners of the shop, and manager Richie Thurston.

"We're down by about 25 percent right now," Gourlay said of his employment level. "We have our guys waiting in the wings, we just haven't been able to put them on yet."

With little snowfall and a late start to the beginning of the ski season coinciding with daily reports about a worsening national economy, the scene inside PK's is far from unique.

Around the corner at Sturtos Boards and Bikes, employee Jason Conners said that the shop, which handles the ski tuning responsibilities but far less retail than its neighboring parent store, had about half of the staff compared to the same time last year.

"It will be pretty nerve-wracking if the economy stays like this," Conners said. "It's a luxury to come here, and a lot of people are backing off from what they're buying and doing."

Like other local ski shops, Sturtos has a small number of core employees working full time, but few hours available for the part timers that usually do a large part of the waxing, tuning and boot fitting that goes on each winter.

In fact, Colin Stelma asked to cut his own hours even further because the slow period meant he wasn't making quite enough to cover the cost of keeping his two-and-a-half year old daughter in daycare.

"Now I'm splitting time between playing Mr. Mom and working in the shop," said Stelma, who travels up from Fairfield to work in Ketchum.

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Other co-workers spend their time away from the shop working second jobs, such as bartenders and wait staff, Conners said.

While the work at the tuning bench is scarce now, Conners said there's not too much of a worry about workers looking out of the area for employment.

"For some of these young guys and girls who come here, they aren't spending too much on rent and living cheaply, they'll just take the hours where they can get them," Conners said.

When the holiday visitors start flocking to the slopes, the shops will once again bring their staff levels back up to a figure similar to last year. However, if tourism slows down in January, ski shop owners could find themselves working to keep their rosters full.

"We'll staff up to our usual 18 employees and try to carry everyone through the winter," Gourlay said. "I get worried about them be able to pay rent."

Gourlay said the three transferable ski passes he purchased through the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau at least allow his workers to get up on Bald Mountain when business slows down in the shop.

The situation is similar over at Pete Lane's Mountain Sports shop located in the Warm Springs Lodge. Ken Edwards, a boot fitter at the shop, said that the numbers of total hours for workers has declined by 20 to 25 percent.

"I look at it as if we're a week behind where we should be," Edwards said.

Edwards said that rather than letting go of the part time employees, the shop is helping retain those workers by transferring some of the hours from the full timers.

According to Edwards, because of the benefits offered by the Sun Valley resort, namely season ski passes, it's much easier for resort employees to justify the lowered income.

"But it can be a challenge for the people who depend on those 40 hours though, Edwards said.

Along with fewer coworkers, Edwards shares another common trait with Gourlay, Conners and Stelma: the belief that some serious snowfall will put skiers on the slopes and customers into the shop.




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