Friday, March 23, 2012

Local economy shows signs of recovery

Real estate, tourism sectors improve


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer


Courtesy graphic Though employment is at lower levels than in 2006, as shown by the graphic above, the crisis seems to be leveling out. The total number of businesses in the valley, shown by the lower line, is still down somewhat from 2010.

Though data seem to suggest that the Blaine County economy is improving, business owners expressed concern over the future during an economic presentation last week.

Economic development group Sustain Blaine presented 2011 financial data to a group of 75 local business owners and interested parties on Thursday, March 15, at the Sun Valley Inn. Executive Director Harry Griffith expressed hope that the county's economy might be recovering from a five-year downturn.

"Blaine County's economic downturn seems to be bottoming out," he said. "2010 seems to [have been] the worst year."

According to the group's data, compiled by Sun Valley City Councilman Bob Youngman, Fly Sun Valley Alliance, the Sun Valley Board of Realtors, Sun Valley Marketing Alliance and Sun Valley Co., taxable sales and real estate transactions both got a boost last year.

Griffith said key retail sectors, such as groceries, retail sales, construction and lodging, were either up slightly or the same in 2011 as they were in 2010. According to the data, retail sales made the biggest jump, from $150 million in 2010 to $164 million in 2011.

However, the type of retail sales has changed. Drug store sales almost doubled over the past five years, and jewelry went up nearly 60 percent. Other sectors, such as home and garden, building supplies, apparel and home furnishings were all down from 2006, with farm and garden items experiencing a 140 percent drop.

In tourism-related data, skier days are up, according to data from Sun Valley Co. Despite passenger numbers at Friedman Memorial Airport having dropped from just under 75,000 in 2007 to just over 50,000 in 2011, skier days have increased from 360,000 to roughly 410,000.

Griffith said hope for recovery can also be found in the real estate markets during 2011.

"The markets are showing some signs of life," he said. "Transaction volumes are trending back up again."

According to the Sun Valley Board of Realtors, the number of real estate transactions hit a low of about 240 during 2009, but was back above 2007 levels last year, with roughly 420 units sold in Blaine County.

However, the value of those transactions dropped again last year with housing prices. In 2007, the inflation-adjusted average value of a real estate sale was well over $1 million—last year, that average plummeted to about $500,000.

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Griffith pointed out that the county's economy has still contracted by 37 percent over the past five years—losses that were mainly contained in the construction and housing industries, which has dropped by more than 85 percent since 2006. As a result, Griffith said, the local economy has become more dependent on tourism-based activities.

While some business owners in attendance urged Griffith and his group to focus on bringing non-tourism-related businesses to the valley, Griffith said he wasn't sure that was even possible, given the number of tradespeople who left the valley looking for work.

"They're in Salt Lake, they're in Twin," he said. "The question is, how much of that can really be recovered?"

Some business owners, including Peter Prekeges, owner of Grumpy's Burgers and Beer in Ketchum and the Silver Dollar Saloon in Bellevue, said perhaps the way out of the recession in Blaine County is to focus on tourism.

"Unless you came here to herd sheep or to mine, you came here because it's beautiful," Prekeges said. "We're a tourist town. Period."

Dave Wilson, former Sun Valley mayor and a Ketchum-based builder, said any business in the valley relies on tourism to a degree.

"We're a ski resort, and construction has depended on tourism," he said. "The houses I build, and the people who build them ... they are not coming here for any other reason than that they like and love Sun Valley."

The economic data from Sustain Blaine's presentation is available on the website, www.sustainblaine.com.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Survey says ...

Business owners and interested parties joined in a polling exercise after the presentation on March 15, weighing in on how they feel the economy is recovering based on the data presented. Some key figures included:

- 96 percent of those polled said the county's small market size is impeding their business.

- 45 percent said they had fewer customers this year than last.

- 59 percent said they would hire seasonal employees this year.

- 30 percent said they would reduce staffing this year.

- 39 percent said they were concerned about their company's future, while 38 percent said they were optimistic.




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