March 14 was supposed to be one of the busiest days of the season in Steamboat Springs, Co. but, after Governor Polis ordered all ski areas to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city became a ghost town.
According to the Steamboat Chamber, the ski area is one of the largest employers in Routt County, but under the new social distancing restrictions, all of Steamboat’s 100 restaurants, 250 shops and 97 lodging facilities were forced to temporarily close, leaving over 2,800 people without work.
The shut-down came as a shock to Steamboat residents, small business owners, and the town government.
“We had just welcomed a full house of folks that Friday and Saturday, I mean we were at 100% occupancy, and Sunday and Monday we were telling them to go home,” said Alan Koermer, the president of Simply Steamboat Luxury Vacation Rentals.
In an effort to keep people safe, all major events were canceled, including the popular Strings Music Festival and the annual St. Patrick’s Day fireworks. Since the majority of Steamboat’s economy is tied to tourism, and tourist activities were suddenly gone, many local workers left to brave the job market in non-seasonal locations.
“We furloughed all of our employees except for the general manager,” said Jenna Meyer-Bilbo, a buyer at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. “We’re definitely not alone, and so many people left town that now everybody’s having trouble actually hiring back employees.”
But it’s not just the rising unemployment rate that is a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city of Steamboat Springs is also having to re-think its economic plans after losing much of its sales and lodging tax revenue from the ski season.
“We’re looking at a forecast of missing out potentially on $10 million of our $12.4 million sales tax revenue for the city of Steamboat, and that’s having a significant impact on the services that the city can provide,” said Koermer.
Currently, the Steamboat Springs town government is looking at funding alternatives to keep the economy afloat.
According to Sue Davies, the budget and tax manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, the town is addressing the economic pitfalls of the COVID-19 pandemic by cutting operating and capital projects funded by a general fund. In addition, the city government is working on reducing its sales tax projection.
“Because we have to reduce the sales tax projection by quite a bit, we are relying on reserves to fund the short fall,” said Davies.
According to the Steamboat Chamber, approximately 500,000 people typically visit Routt County every year. Without those tourists, small businesses like Off the Beaten Path had to get creative to stay afloat.
“We stayed open with skeleton staff doing curbside for as long as we were able, until basically the state government told us we were required to shut down,” said Meyer-Bilbo.
The bookstore applied for two different small business loans, but did not think they would receive any money for several months, so they had to turn to more innovative forms of funding. Happily, a GoFundMe campaign raised $20,000 within a week, “which completely blew us all away,” she said.
Steamboat Springs isn’t the only Colorado ski town that’s struggling to cope with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Denver Post, the truncated ski season will potentially cause $2 billion in lost revenue for the state.
The Associated Press estimates that Colorado ski resorts contribute $5-6 billion to the state’s economy each year, and most resorts generate 25-30% of their revenue between March and the end of the season—the exact time that the ski areas were forced to shut down.
The lost revenue from the ski season doesn’t just affect small business and individuals, though. Even multi-million-dollar corporations were impacted by the ski area closures. Global ski pass companies, like Epic and Ikon, tapped into their own funds to offer credits and discounts to purchasers of 2019-2020 season passes.
“This has no doubt been an incredibly challenging time,” said a representative from Vail Resorts Management Company, whose ski resorts are included on the Epic Pass.
The company made the difficult decision to close all 37 of its resorts across 15 states and 3 countries, causing $140 million in lost revenue.
In Steamboat, residents are looking on the bright side. Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused major damage, it also allowed the community to unite in support of one another.
“A positive thing that I think came out of this is a lot of people banded together and realized that we are all in this together,” said Koermer.