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Smoky business

Businesses throughout the Rogue Valley are holding their breath, hoping they’ll be spared from another summer of smoke.

“Last summer was awful,” said Mark Hedford, one of the owners of Martolli’s pizza restaurant in Ashland. “It’s not fun to make less money. We did more business last May than we did last August.”

The smoky skies impacted tourism and entertainment businesses, with Jacksonville’s Britt Music & Arts Festival moving concerts to North Medford High School, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival moving or canceling 26 outdoor shows. Wineries and other tourist draws said they also saw a downturn in business.

Realtors saw fewer people looking for new homes, and some potential buyers canceled sales because of the smoke caused by wildfires. As a result, some Realtors recommend putting houses on the market earlier in the year.

While some businesses have taken steps to lessen the impact of a smoky summer, most hope we will catch a break this year even as a spate of wildfires hit the region in advance of the official start of the fire season on June 1 at the latest. Many locals are awaiting something from legislators to more effectively stamp out wildfires.

Hedford said he’s trying to think positively about this summer, praising the main Ashland tourist draw, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for making adjustments to deal with possible smoke.

This season, OSF is kicking off plays at its outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre May 28, a week earlier than last year’s June 5 opening day. That gives the festival another week of plays during the spring, when there’s less chance of wildfire smoke.

So far, bookings for school groups are reflecting strong interest for outdoor performances. And it’s those school groups that help fill up restaurants such as Martolli’s.

Hedford said the downturn in business last summer probably hit some of the higher-end restaurants more, but he had the flexibility to scale back the hours of his staff. Martolli’s typically has customers waiting in line to order, but last summer the restaurant often saw only a handful of customers on some days.

Most tourists who visited Southern Oregon during the smoky summers of 2017 and 2018 said they would return, but a majority said wildfire smoke would affect the timing of their visits, according to a survey by the Southern Oregon University Research Center, known as SOURCE.

The survey was emailed to 8,449 people who visited the region during the last two summers, and 1,905 people answered the survey, a response rate of 22.5%.

The survey was sent to people who visited during July, August and September 2017 and 2018 using email addresses gained from tourist-heavy businesses such as hotels and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

About 85% of those who visited said they plan to return for future visits, but 72% said they would consider the smoke when making their plans. A majority said they would not return when wildfires or smoke plague the region, and several said they would consider visits in the offseason.

Eli Matthews, director of Travel Medford, said occupancy at hotels was down 11 percent last August, and tourists are booking closer to the date they plan to travel so they can make a last-minute decision based on air quality.

As a result, marketing efforts are focusing on the spring and fall months to encourage more tourists, rather than in July and August, which are the prime tourist months locally, Matthews said.

Sunny, clear skies help inspire home buyers to pull up roots and move to the Rogue Valley.

“When the smoke hits, it impacts us almost immediately,” said Teresa McCants with Southern Oregon Homes. “We had someone walk away from $3,000 in earnest money because of it.”

McCants said she advises clients to be ready for a slowdown in the market if the smoke hits and to put houses on the market earlier. Last year, interest in real estate dropped off markedly after July 15, when a lightning storm sparked 145 fires. McCants said houses still sell during smoky periods, but fewer people are looking.

In Ashland, housing prices declined 5 percent from summer 2018 to Jan. 1, McCants said.

But from January to March, prices rebounded 8.5 percent, and the inventory of houses for sale has gone down because people are buying again, McCants said.

A resident of the valley for 37 years, McCants said she thinks officials will find a way to reduce the prolonged stretches of smoky skies. She remembered that during the 1980s, the valley was plagued with smoky days when the timber industry was at its height, but eventually that problem was fixed.

“I think they will find a solution,” she said.

Legislators are looking at increased funding for fighting wildfires, including adding more manpower to the Oregon Department of Forestry, particularly more front-line firefighters who can get blazes out faster. The idea is to have a rapid initial attack to prevent massive wildfires from burning for months.

Oregon was the top destination for people to move to from other states a few years ago, but it has slipped to fourth place, possibly because of the smoke, McCants said.

Employers are also looking for the best ways to deal with smoke, particularly for workers who have to go outdoors.

Avista provides respirator masks for its employees when the air quality worsens, and the utility will also postpone work if conditions are particularly bad.

“We use a tiered approach with air quality, from postponing nonemergency work to providing air filtration masks for those who are required to perform services,” said Eric Rosentrater, Avista director of safety and craft training.

The natural gas utility still will respond in emergencies.

Mark Wisnovsky, owner of Valley View Winery in the Applegate, said he’s installed washable electrostatic filters in his building, along with box fans that have similar filters to at least give customers clean air inside the tasting room.

“It does make a difference, especially when people see the filters,” he said. “When I’m in my office for four or five hours and I walk outside, the smoke hits you, so they do work.”

Still, for tourists who like to sip their wine outdoors, the smoke puts a damper on their plans.

While tourists are bothered by the smoke, Wisnovsky said most just grin and bear it because last year there was smoke from Washington state to San Francisco.

“If it’s just localized in Southern Oregon, it has a pretty big impact,” he said.

Wisnovsky said he thinks officials will figure out a way to be more responsive and hit fires faster, though that will also kick the problem down the road.

“We will be creating more biomass in the forest,” he said.

Dan Marca with Dancin Vineyards said, “Although there was smoke in the valley last season, this is still one of the most amazing places on Earth to live to do business.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

The Hendrix Fire burns last summer.{ }Mail Tribune file photo