Aspen retailers weathered poor snowfall with decent performances

Rick Carroll-The Aspen Times

Independence Pass is open, tourists are trickling into Aspen this Memorial Day weekend and town will resemble its lively summer self in the coming weeks.

The uptick in guests also might help ease memories of what was deemed a poor ski season because of snow. But when it came to business, just how bad was the winter on Aspen retailers?

"It could have been horrific, and if you're a Front Range retailer, it definitely would have made a big difference because those day skiers weren't going, but destination skiers aren't going to cancel everything because it's bad snow," said Lisa LeMay, the regional manager for Aspen T-Shirt Co. who also represents retailers on the board of directors of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

For sure, as poor as the snow was this past season, at least by locals' standards, the economic numbers don't exactly portray a depressed tourism season.

Each month the city's Finance Department releases its Consumption Tax Report, a barometer for how retailers are performing compared to previous years.

The most recent report, issued May 2, showed $250.8 million in Aspen retail sales from January to April, a 3 percent improvement over the first four months of 2017. And December, a dismal month for snowfall, fell 1 percent behind December 2016.

"Aspen has set itself up as a destination, so people are willing to come regardless," said Riley Tippet, owner of Ski Butlers Ski Rentals.

Tippet, also an ACRA board member, said he heard good and bad from fellow business operators.

"I heard some people who were unfazed by it, and others talking about how there was a severe impact to them," he said. "When you get in these tough snow years, there are less people participating in winter activities."

The only sector down for the first four months of the year was restaurants and bars, which rang up $42.9 million in sales, 2 percent off the same stretch in 2017.

Another economic indicator is offered monthly by StayAspenSnowmass, a central reservations firm operated by Aspen Skiing Co. The most recent report, released last week, showed Aspen had a paid occupancy rate of 58.4 percent from November through April, representing a slight increase over the 57.9 percent clip from November 2016 to April 2017. The record occupancy rate, noted StayAspenSnowmass president Bill Tomcich in his assessment emailed to the business community, was 59 percent in the winter of 2007-08.

This winter's figures, however, are a bit misleading because of the loss of the Sky Hotel, which is being replaced with a W Hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain. Construction is underway with an opening eyed for some time in 2019.

"It should also again be noted that there were on average roughly 4 percent fewer available rooms in Aspen this year versus last because of the loss of the Sky Hotel," Tomcich reported, "so while the properties may have realized slightly stronger occupancy rates, there were not necessarily any more visitors staying in Aspen lodging properties."

Aspen also has cemented some winter events that are proven revenue generators, including the Winter X Games, Gay Ski Week and Spring Jam, among others.

"Normally what happens is we'll do OK in December, January will be fantastic because of all of the events — thank God for the X Games — and it's a really high occupancy," said Bob Morris, who runs a firm that manages Aspen Mountain Lodge's condominium association.

Before March came around, however, Morris wasn't too optimistic. Yet February helped reverse the season with three weeks of steady snowfall, eclipsing the total amount of snow that accumulated the prior December, January and February.

"With people knowing the conditions sucked in December and January and for part of February, there was a lot of pent-up demand for going skiing. And that pent-up demand expressed itself in March," Morris said.

Aspen lodges in March hauled in $89.7 million in revenue, which was nearly identical to figures posted in March 2017, a month buoyed by the Audi FIS Ski World Cup Finals, and a month that shattered the March 2016 performance by 10 percent.

Aspen skier visits, however, aren't expected to be in line with retailer performances.

Skico previously reported that its skier visits were down 20 percent through December at its four ski areas. The ski trade industry group Colorado Ski Country USA will reveal cumulative skier visit percentages for its members at its annual conference in June, also when Aspen Skiing Co. is set to release its figures.

LeMay noted that the snow also affected retailers that sell items geared for cold Aspen weather.

"There were certain categories within categories that hurt," she said. "It wasn't a cold winter so people didn't need to buy hand-warmers and toe-warmers. And those add up when you have a family of five here for seven days, but they're not going to use them every day.

"It wasn't snowy so people weren't investing in expensive goggles and other winter clothing."

As for the upcoming summer season, which traditionally kicks off in earnest with the Food & Wine Magazine Classic — this year it's June 15 to 17 — bookings are a bit off, Tomcich reported. Aspen set occupancy records in the summer of 2017 and Snowmass Village was not behind, he said.

"At this point advance bookings for this summer are pacing slightly behind last year's record pace," Tomcich wrote.

Morris said the inconsistency on Wall Street could come into play.

"I think it's a mixed bag," he said. "The stock market is in a good place but it's the volatility that seems to be affecting consumer sentiment. … Maybe my vibes are wrong for the summer, but I'm not as excited as I was a year ago."

LeMay was more upbeat about the summer prospects.

"Summer has grown more and more every year," she said. "And we anticipate it's just going to be as strong this summer."

City of Aspen to hold a special election surround new chairlift

Carolyn Sackariason-The Aspen Times

Aspen residents can expect a special election in early 2019 to decide on an alignment for a new Lift 1A chairlift and possibly hotels on either side of it.

City planners last month plotted out a fairly aggressive timeline for public review of land-use applications for the Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus. Both properties will have to be reconfigured to accommodate a newly designed chairlift that goes down to Dean Street.

Officials expect that those hotel redesigns will likely trigger a public vote because of variances to the land-use code that developers may ask for. The development and lift would affect city-owned property, which also requires a vote.

As a result, there could be as many as three ballot questions that would go to voters once all the pieces come together.

But to get to that point, city departments must weigh in on the plans, and then there has to be review and approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Historic Preservation Commission and City Council.

The original thought was that approvals would need to happen by the end of July or early August to get ballot language ready for the November election.

Jessica Garrow, the city's Community Development director, said all of the affected parties agree that's not enough time for a full vetting of the land-use applications.

"We are all working well together but we just need more time to get the details dialed in," she said, adding she expects land-use applications to be submitted to the city by mid- to late summer.

In the meantime, there will be work session-style meetings with the review bodies to hash out details like space needs for lift operations, mudflow, grading, site planning and uses on the properties.

Garrow said the winter of 2019 is when the vote will likely take place.

"We believe January or February is more achievable and will ensure the community and the review bodies have more fully developed and understandable plans to vote on," she said.

Last month, the four landowners at the base of Aspen Mountain's west side agreed on a new lift alignment, which came after a year of studying nine options.

Those who own property in the area are the city of Aspen; Aspen Skiing Co.; local hoteliers Michael and Aaron Brown, who have approvals for a new Lift One Lodge; as well as retailer Jeff Gorsuch and his partners, who are proposing to build a new hotel, the Gorsuch Haus.

Councilman Adam Frisch had said at a May 15 meeting that he didn't want to rush the approval process and suggested a special election sometime in the winter.

He said Thursday he is pleased that the process has been slowed down.

"If they need an extra couple of months then so be it," he said, adding he'll push for an on-mountain voting location. "It would be classic if there was a ballot box on the mountain."

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