Friday, July 23, 2010

Mountain Town News


Jackson Hole leaders talk about lodging tax

JACKSON, Wyo.—Town and county leaders in Jackson have been moving toward asking local voters in November to approve a sales tax on lodging. Both hotel rooms and shorter-term housing—defined as 30 days or less—would be taxed.

The added revenue would benefit sagging government treasures while expanding promotion of Jackson Hole with what was described as a "world-class national campaign."

The Jackson Hole News&Guide explains that voters three times in the 1990s rejected a lodging tax, and elected officials withdrew the idea on their own in 2006.

Whether the tax flies with hoteliers and others directly engaged in tourism within Jackson seems to depend upon how decisions will be made for spending the money. Some 60 percent of revenues would be directly earmarked for marketing. This time, innkeepers want agreements clarified before the vote, so they can see how money could and could not be spent.

A 1 percent lodging tax would generate $1.4 million annually, according to a 2008 estimate. Locals pay about 60 percent of the general sales tax in Jackson, but it was assumed that visitors would pay almost all of a lodging tax.

In Aspen, voters will be asked this November to approve an increase in the existing lodging tax, with the money to be used for promotion.

Aspen hopes for lift with longer runway

ASPEN, Colo.—Pitkin County commissioners have approved a 1,000-foot extension of the airport runway near Aspen, giving jets 8,000 feet to get off the ground.

The practical effect of this added length is that airlines will be able to put more passengers and baggage on the planes. Because of the thinner air at 8,000 feet, particularly during the warm days of summer, the airlines can offer fewer seats out of Aspen than they have arriving in Aspen.

"During the summer months, Aspen is a challenging airport. As temperatures rise, performance starts to degrade," said Dave Faddis, director of safety for Skywest, which operates flights out of the airport.

The Aspen Times, in covering the commissioners' meeting, reports that two former airline pilots disputed a consultant's report that optimistically found 15,000 more seats will be available because of the longer runway. "This is really misleading," said former pilot Les Holst.

The Federal Aviation Administration will likely pay 90 percent of the estimated $17.5 million cost. Jim Elwood, airport director, estimated the extension could be completed by late next year.

One valley away, in Eagle County, the same arguments, logic, and conclusions were reached in a runway extension to 9,000 feet. The airport benefits mostly Vail and Beaver Creek, but with some business from Aspen. There, the FAA also picked up most of the tab.


Motorheads have tough time self-policing users

DURANGO, Colo. -- Oh, those rogue riders. While most motorized users have been circumspect about following rules, some of them insist on going where none have gone before, at least with internal-combustion engines.

The Durango Telegraph reports that two years ago the U.S. Forest Service opened 52 miles of roads and trails to motorized travel north of Durango. The idea was that by providing access to dedicated trails, motorized users wouldn't go where they weren't wanted.

It hasn't happened. There have been repeated incursions into the Weminuche Wilderness Area.

The San Juan Trail Riders, an advocacy group for motorized users, urges patience. Changes come slowly, explains Gary Wilkinson, president of the group.

At Eagle, located down-valley from Vail, retired wildlife biologist Bill Heicher sees some evidence of ATV users hewing to trails. This comes after years of complaints and advisories.

Motorcycle riders are another matter. "One dirt bike can do the damage of 100 mountain bikers," says Heicher. "All you have to do is gun that back tire a little bit in sensitive soils, and you've done damage for 50 years."

Aspen Skiing lays down helmet law for instructors

ASPEN, Colo.—Come next winter, ski instructors at the four ski areas operated by the Aspen Skiing Co. will have to wear helmets if their students have to wear helmets.

Customers 17 years of age and younger must wear helmets, as do skiers of any age in terrain parks.

The Aspen Times reports that ski company officials heard from parents who said it was difficult to get their kids to wear helmets when the ski instructors were not. "We adopted more of a role-modeling policy," said Mike Kaplan, chief executive of Aspen Skiing. The company, he added, will "really ramp up" its education efforts next season to promote helmets.

The 500 salaried employees will also be required to wear helmets next winter, but not seasonal employees. Asked why, Kaplan said it's because the company just doesn't hand down edicts.

Except, apparently, when it does.

Recession taking toll on resort businesses

TELLURIDE, Colo.—The rubble of the Great Recession continues to grow as restaurants close and buses shrink schedules in mountain valleys of the West. But here and there are glints of optimism.

At Minturn, located just around the corner from Vail, a restaurant called Chili Willy's has closed after 27 years of operation. Owner Al Brown said had had been making a little money, but at the expense of too many 16-hour days during the last two years.

"If I thought (the economy) was going to turn around quickly, I might have kept it going," Brown told the Vail Daily.

At Snowmass Village, a similar story was told. "I ran out of money," explained Butch Darden, proprietor of Butch's Lobster Bar for the last 18 years. He estimated that business was "probably 60 percent of what it once was."

Darden may have compounded his problems by opening another restaurant last year at Basalt, a down-valley town. It, too, has closed, reports The Aspen Times.

In the Vail area, the Economic Council of Eagle County found that about a third of local businesses had job openings last winter, down from about two thirds two winters before. Most local businesses also slashed benefits and hours, said Tsu Wolin-Brown, executive director of the Vail Valley Salvation Army.

With construction of two major resort complexes in Vail now ended, 200 retail-sector jobs will be added. But the jobs are apples to oranges, notes Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Homeowners' Association. "A construction worker could get $50 an hour whereas a service worker is lucky to get $15 an hour," he said.

Operators of bus services in resort valleys have also been hammered. Most depend upon sales tax collections by local governments. With their decline, the bus agencies have jacked up fares and cut back service.

That's the same strategy being pursued by operators of the bus service that knits together Crested Butte with two other local towns. Previously free, the service will now cost $2 per ride. And instead of 10 buses a day, only six will be offered.

"This is a temporary solution to a temporary problem -- we hope," said Leah Williams, the mayor of Crested Butte.

Governments have also been struggling. In Colorado's Summit County, elected officials must figure out what will be cut next year to correspond with a projected $4 million to $5 million shortfall in revenue.

In Wyoming, officials in Jackson and Teton County—the area known as Jackson Hole—are moving toward a proposed lodging tax to shore up government revenues.

In Telluride, optimism prevailed in the report from Mayor Stu Fraser. The ski area last winter set records, as has at least one summer festival. Sales tax revenues have increased nearly 5 percent—still not close to the prerecessionary levels, but at least a bounce in the right direction. Real estate sales have also started increasing.

"These economic indicators are not guarantees that the recession is over, but we are seeing a positive trend," Fraser said.

Back in Vail, there's a distinct sense of pessimism in some quarters that the party of boom years will return any time soon.

"Having been through this before, I don't think people should be holding out false hopes that things are going to turn around anytime soon," said Lamont, who has been in Vail for about 40 years.

Lamont made that statement before the New York Times last Saturday published a story titled "Wealthy Sector of Buying Public is Cutting Back."

"One of the reasons that the recovery has lost momentum is that high-end consumers have become more jittery and more cautious,' Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moodys' Analytics, said.

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