City sales tax figures for downtown Steamboat Springs showed improvement in March, but not enough to persuade business leaders that the city's historic retail district isn't under-performing.
"All my business neighbors, we see those numbers, and we look at each other and say, 'We're not in that category,'" Rob Reagan said this week. He is the owner of Visia Eyewear, and a new member of Main Street Steamboat's Economic Restructuring Committee.
The committee is playing an active role in the effort to sharpen the competitiveness of businesses on Lincoln Avenue as well as on Yampa and Oak streets. It recently asked the city of Steamboat Springs to provide it with more detailed information about sales tax receipts in an effort to better understand the trends behind the numbers.
City sales tax collections for downtown in the miscellaneous retail category (largest of the categories) were up 5.5 percent to $1,445,393 in 2004. Yet, that number was lower than levels for 2000: 1,449,009.
The city collects 4 percent sales tax plus 0.5 percent for the public schools in Steamboat. The state collects an additional 2.9 percent, and Routt County collects a single point of sales tax.
Bill Moser is a commercial leasing agent with offices on Oak Street. He said when one considers inflation and other trends diluting sales for individual downtown businesses, sales are virtually flat or worse.
"When you look back at the last five to six years in miscellaneous retail, it's not going down enough to say the condition is critical, but it's moribund," Moser said.
The city finance department produces a monthly sales tax report that shows citywide trends in several categories of business as well as sales tax trends for different commercial districts within the city. In 2005, the city is producing a report for Main Street Steamboat that shows month-by-month progress for different business categories including lodging, restaurants, sporting goods and miscellaneous retail.
Overall, downtown posted modest gains of 6.6 percent in 2004 after declines of 5.2 percent in 2003 sales tax receipts.
Ruth Dombrowski is a vice president with Alpine Bank and chairwoman of the restructuring committee. She said newspaper accounts during the winter of growing citywide sales tax receipts were disquieting to downtown business owners who weren't having the same experience. Similarly, newspaper reports about large ski groups arriving in town and load factors on jets arriving in the valley from major cities left business people scratching their heads when the vacationers didn't show up in downtown stores.
"The paper was always reporting that sales tax collections are up," Dombrowski said. "But so many business were saying, 'I'm not up!' You had to ask yourself, 'Is it attributable to a brand new business opening?'"
When a large group came to the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel in late March for a rock 'n' roll ski vacation complete with private concerts by big name bands, downtown didn't see a benefit.
"You'd go out on the street, and there just weren't people down there," Reagan said. "They weren't shopping."
Downtown retail was up 3.9 percent in January, 4.4 percent in February and 2 percent in March. The 2 percent in March is better than it was in the city overall -- miscellaneous retail grew only by 0.15 percent. However, miscellaneous retail receipts grew by 11.77 percent in the U.S. 40 corridor.
Downtown restaurants were up 2.6 percent in January, 6 percent in February and 2.4 percent in March.
Sporting goods produced stronger results in the heart of the ski season, up 24.1 percent in January, 17 percent in February and 6.1 percent in March.
The long road back
Overall, downtown took a predictable hit in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That effect continued through the last three months of 2001, and sales tax receipts were off nearly 5 percent in the downtown for the year. The lost ground was reclaimed in 2002 and in 2003, when sales tax receipts sank to$2.65 million, lower than the $2.72 million level of 2000.
Veteran downtown businessman Dan Bonner owns Go-fer Foods and is a certified public accountant.
Bonner said that some trends have eroded downtown business, including the loss of some lodging properties and the hospital's move to the commercial area between downtown and Mount Werner.
Downtown lodging tax receipts have been trending downward since the Harbor Hotel closed in 2003, and that trend continued this year. Downtown lodging was off almost 14 percent in February, and that was in comparison to February 2004, which was already off 34 percent from the month before.
Bonner said Harbor Hotel guests formerly provided a built-in clientele for his convenience store. He's optimistic that several urban renewal projects in different phases of development in the downtown core will replace some of those losses. Two of those renewal projects will be developed where the two hotels are due to be torn down. The projects combine new commercial spaces with housing units on upper floors.
Members of the financial restructuring committee were particularly concerned that the true performance of the miscellaneous retail category was being disguised by the growth in restaurant receipts downtown.
Now they have the detail they were seeking, and for the first three months of the year, the growth rate in retail held its own with restaurants. But that wasn't the case throughout 2004.
Thanks to double-digit growth in six of 12 months, including a 23.8 percent gain in September, downtown restaurants were up 9.1 percent last year compared with 5.5 percent for retail.
Retail was still the category leader with $1.44 million in tax receipts compared with almost $1.1 million for restaurants.
Bonner pointed out that the gains probably were diluted for individual restaurants by the growth in restaurant tables in the downtown during the past five years.
Reagan said he's still hungry for more knowledge about the downtown commercial scene.
"It's frustrating, because you don't know where you stand," he said.