Local economy: Half-empty, half-full, and reason for optimism

By the end of May, Friday Harbor had received $276,250 as its share of sales tax revenue generated within the town limits, according to the latest report from the Town Treasurer’s office.

The amount reflects revenues generated from November to March; revenues are received two months after they are reported.

The total received to date is $32,786.94 less than that received in the same period of 2009. Here, we’re at “glass is half-empty” or “glass is half-full”: The drop in revenue from 2008 to 2009 was more severe — $72,973.54.

From the half-full department: the town’s share of lodging tax revenue is up: $17,523.06 YTD, compared to $13,674.89 during the same period last year.

(And Friday Harbor businesses had their fifth-best December ever, yielding $85,863.12 for the town treasury in February. But that was slightly less than the previous December and almost $20,000 less than the December two years earlier, when the economic slide began).

A positive sign: In March, revenues exceeded those of the same month the previous year for the first time since July 2009. And now, some merchants are noticing more foot traffic and more business. They’re hoping for a strong summer but say they’ll need it to recover from a poor winter (November, January, and February were dismal compared to last year).

“It was terrible winter,” said Julie Capron-Ashcraft of Softwear. “It seems like last weekend and Victoria Day weekend, it seemed like the Canadians are coming back. Their dollar’s stronger. It’s OK, but it’s going to take the whole summer to make up for the winter.”

Doug Bison’s Bison Gallery is getting more foot traffic since he moved from Nichols Street to First Street.

“There’s a little more activity this year. Moving over here has really increased my traffic,” Bison said. “Last weekend was good. Nothing outrageous, but there were a lot of people in town. To me, that’s a good indication. There were a lot more people this Memorial Day weekend than last year, maybe as many. Hopefully things are settling down with this stupid economy.”

Bison said his gallery business was up 6 percent in April. But April 2009 was “devastating.”

“The mere fact I’m up is a positive sign. I’m looking forward to the next five months at this location.”

Bison blames the weather as much as the economy. “If we can maintain weather like we used to have in the old days, this is the third year where the weather’s been … it’s colder.”

To bolster the town’s summer, the Friday Harbor Town Council allocated $40,000 in lodging tax funds to the Chamber of Commerce and the Visitors Bureau for a blitz of summer promotions over the Internet, in print, on radio and on television.

The San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce was allocated $15,000 for a promotion with Comcast, for on-air promotions in four zones: South Snohomish, North Seattle, Bellevue-Issaquah, Woodinville-Redmond. A commercial by SanJuanIslandsTV.com will be broadcast by Comcast over Bravo, Comedy, E!, Headline, Animal Planet and Fox News channels. A banner video will be placed on Comcast.net. View it at www.fridayharbordeals.com.

The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau was allocated $25,000 for television ads through Aug. 28 on KING 5, KONG and NorthWest Cable News, and a June radio promotion on WARM 106.9 FM. Some 852 television ads will run during the news and weather segments, as well as “Northwest Backroads,” “Gardening with Cisco” and “Today Show.” The URL at the end of the ad takes viewers to www.alwaysfridayharbor.com. The TV commercial was created by Levy Films of Seattle.

The town charges 4 percent in lodging taxes for tourism-related uses: 2 percent for tourism-related facilities, such as the public restrooms on Sunshine Alley, and 2 percent for promotions to bolster tourism in the shoulder season, the thought being that the town and island had no problem attracting visitors during the summer months.

That thought has changed. After two years of sluggish economy, Chamber of Commerce executive director Vernadel Peterson, Visitors Bureau executive director Deborah Hopkins and Town Councilwoman Carrie Brooks, who also chairs the town Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, all spoke of the urgency businesses feel to have a successful summer before the slower shoulder season begins.

County revenues up 7.6 percent
There’s positive news countywide. Sales tax figures to date are 7.6 percent higher than during the same period last year, according to the County Treasurer’s Office.

“These recent San Juan County figures show that tourism is not going to be as whomped as other sectors. It’s up, we’re flat, and that’s positive news,” said Victoria Compton, executive director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council. “It’s clear that more marketing for any of our sectors will produce positive results. In looking at previous economic slumps, tourism has not been affected as much as other sectors have been.”