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Summer snapshot: gains in some economic sectors
By Cali Bagby/Islands Sounder Reporter
On any given day, visitors can be see milling around shops in Eastsound, eating ice cream, walking on the beach and camping in Moran State Park. But islanders are skeptical as to whether or not this summer’s tourism is actually boosting the economy. Here’s a snapshot of how things are going when it comes to ferry riders, tourism, real estate and unemployment.
According to Washington State Ferry statistics it appears that more visitors are coming to the islands compared to last year. From April to June 2011, there was a total of 437,410 ferry riders – 215,218 drove their vehicles and 222,192 came to the islands as car passengers or on foot. This April through June a total of 452,858 riders came aboard the ferries and 222,806 came in cars while 230,052 were passengers or on foot. But the question remains, what are they doing once they get off the boat?
Deborah Hopkins of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau said they don’t have access to lodging tax (tax paid for overnight stays at a lodging property such as a hotel, motel, resort, inn, and bed and breakfast) statistics for the summer, but May numbers show that the islands fared well. County lodging tax increased 26 percent through May compared to last year. Orcas Island lodging tax increased by 37 percent, San Juan Island increased by 25 percent, Friday Harbor increased by 17 percent, but Lopez Island decreased by 26 percent.
Regionally, San Juan County fared well through April, according to the latest report on the Department of Revenue’s website. When compared to 11 other tourism-centric counties in the state, San Juan County (including Friday Harbor) tax grew 29.9 percent. Whatcom and Grays Harbor Counties’ lodging tax grew less than half that amount at 11.99 percent and 11.67 percent, respectively.
Lance Evans, director of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, said his insight into this summer’s tourism is what he sees at the office. Evans said there has been an increase in visitors requesting guides, walk-ins to the chamber and what he says is the most telling – more people asking where to find lodging.
“There are hopeful signs,” Evans said.
He added that visitors may be increasing from last year, but he suspects that their experiences may have changed.
“Visitors may be camping more, not eating out as much and staying fewer days,” he said.
The Northwest Multiple Listing Service reports that sales are up 67 percent this July when compared to last July. A total of 15 residences were sold this month and nine were sold at this time last year. So far this year, there have been 103 units sold compared to 68 sold in 2011. Sale prices have also increased. The average sale price for residences this July was $625,133 and $456,722 for July 2011.
Minnie Knych, coordinator of the Workforce Council Career Center in Friday Harbor, said the unemployment rate in San Juan County has improved, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Employment Security. But she said this is typical for summer months on the islands. By the end of July, Knych said the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, which is still low for the country, but when compared to the usual summer rate of 3 percent, the “good old days” are still just memories.
Knych added the 5.6 rate does not include people who are no longer looking for work, people who are taking summer employment because there are no year -round jobs available or those getting paid “under the table.”
“These people have earned a living by working for cash,” Knych said. “They do not pay into social security nor do they pay unemployment insurance, so when they can no longer find work, they have no safety net. The real rate of unemployment and under employment in our county is much higher.”
She added that another way to look at the economy is to look at the high number of empty store fronts along Spring Street in Friday Harbor. Knych urges islanders in need of work to contact the Career Center at 378-4662.