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Smoke down, business up in Ashland

Ashland businesses report better than expected sales this summer, with many recording gains over last year.

Many worried that 2018’s smoky skies might discourage visitors in 2019, and traffic was indeed down for some in August. But on the whole, merchants had a healthy summer and are optimistic about the future.

Katharine Cato, director of the Ashland Visitor & Convention Bureau, acknowledged that business was mixed this summer. The visitor bureau operates under the umbrella of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

“Our surveys are out, but I have heard that May, June and July were fairly strong for many Ashland businesses,” Cato said.

August, however, was a different story. It was a hard month for some, she said, especially for businesses who cater to Oregon Shakespeare Festival playgoers.

“There were folks who were down in single digits or flat in August,” she said. “But others were up.”

OSF, in preparation for possible smoky skies in August, scheduled Elizabethan plays in the smaller Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre for part of the summer. That resulted in fewer seats available for sale for the Elizabethan shows. And fewer playgoers resulted in fewer shoppers for many businesses.

Cato said there was a decline in foot traffic downtown in August.

“But Medford was a little soft in August, as well, so maybe business was soft generally in the region.”

Playgoers often plan their visits up to a year in advance. After last year’s smoky summer, many decided to take a wait and see attitude, making last-minute travel decisions.

“There was the problem of perception of smoke — that there could be smoke,” Cato said. In the past, Ashland has benefited from advance planning by visitors, but 2018 changed that dynamic for 2019.

Figures from the city of Ashland show how the restaurant and lodging business has fared generally. Indications are that the eateries are faring better.

The occupancy rate for fiscal year 2019 is 52.74%, compared to 59.39% in 2018. For the years 2000 to 2012, occupancy rates were in the 40% to 50% range. In subsequent years, it was averaging about 55%, with 2018 the high point.

On the food and beverage side, tax revenues are highest for the fall (October-December) and summer (July-September) quarters, with autumn receipts greater. Winter (January-March) and spring (April-June) revenues are lower and about the same each quarter.

From the year 2004 to 2019, each year has shown an increase over the previous year for each quarter.

One would expect that eateries would feel the pinch more from fewer playgoers, but many reported just the opposite.

“We’ve been busy straight through the year,” said Tom Dubois of Louie’s on the downtown Plaza, reporting that the little smoke Ashland experienced didn’t put a dent in business.

“We lost only five outdoor serving days,” he said. “Business has been up for us all summer, thanks to the great town we have as well as to the things we’re doing here in the restaurant.”

The folks at Martolli’s Hand-Tossed Pizza near the Plaza report strong traffic all summer.

Travel Essentials had a mixed summer.

“Business was up for us in June and July,” said manager Danny Frazier, “August not so much.” He said September has started out stronger than usual.

The Crown Jewel has been happy with its summer business.

“July was our strongest month,” said co-owner Anne Robison. “It was up quite a bit. August was better than last year, but it could have been a lot better (without the smoke scare).”

Ron Hanson of Gold & Gems said business is up over last year, even with the bit of smoke.

“It’s been good,” he said. “Even August traffic was good.” He said more business coming from locals as well as from Medford and out of the area boosted business.

Paddington Station owner Kelly Jean Cooney said their summer started out really strong.

“August was a bit of a struggle for us,” she said, primarily, she believes, because about 1,000 fewer playgoers were on the streets.

LouAnn David of Manzanita on the Plaza said summer business has remained steady compared to last year.

“Our August was about the same as last year, and September has started off well,” she said.

Ellen Campbell, who used to own the Chanticleer Inn Bed & Breakfast, said in July that her August bookings were looking like March. New owners Julie and Johnny Mathison took over Aug. 6.

“September and October bookings are looking good,” said Julie Mathison. “There is a lot of effort to market Ashland for all the things it has to offer, and that makes us optimistic.”

Businesses will take pleasure in the announcement this week that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will preview, open and keep Elizabethan plays in the outdoor theater all season in 2020. That should produce more consistent visitor traffic in the business section next summer.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Jim Flint photoWith air quality an issue only five days this summer, Ashland businesses report better sales compared to last year. This sunny view of the Ashland Plaza and downtown Ashland is a welcome change from the smoky conditions of 2018.