Steamboat Springs Tracy Barnett remembers when mud season meant that if you wanted to eat lunch during the workday, you better pack it or allow time to go home.
Just 10 years ago, "it used to be dead here" when the ski area closed and locals went on much-needed spring break vacations, Barnett said.
"It isn't like it used to be at all," she said.
Barnett should know. She has lived in Steamboat for 32 years. For 20 of those years, she and her husband owned Mazzola's Italian Restaurant downtown. Today, she is the project manager for the Main Street Steamboat Springs organization, which promotes downtown businesses.
When Barnett and her husband owned the restaurant, some years they would close for six weeks or more during mud season.
"People around here just expect it," Barnett said.
But things have changed.
In some cases, restaurants can no longer afford to close for the entire mud season. Not only for financial reasons, but also because finding good employees is difficult, and closing for weeks at a time forced employees to look elsewhere for employment, Barnett said.
"It's really difficult to not be open," she said. "You tend to spend money on staffing just to keep people around."
While many restaurants and other businesses near the base area still close for much of the mud season, many downtown businesses choose to close for just a few days to clean, paint and do other maintenance.
"It's really such a nice time downtown because you pretty much got the place to yourself," Barnett said. "It's just not like it used to be, when you couldn't do anything downtown."
Riley Polumbus, spokeswoman with the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, noted two reasons why Steamboat is no longer as deserted as it used to be this time of year.
"Part of that is the economy allows people to stick around," Polumbus said. "Part is the general growth in population."
Steamboat's economy is more diversified than it was 10 years ago, Polumbus said. People who were working in the hospitality industry during the winter months can find work during the shoulder season, which limits the mass exodus of people, she said.
"More and more people are starting to stay around," Polumbus said.
The summer tourist season also starts earlier now, in late May, and the shoulder season is shorter.
Locals still feel the need to get away during mud season to warm destinations such as Mexico, and that likely is not going to change, Polumbus said.
"It's kind of like kids getting out of school," she said. "It's kind of that long needed break before things get busy again."
There are some benefits for those locals who do not leave for the entire mud season.
"It's when all the locals can go out and see each other," Barnett said. "Now, we have time."
And summer is just around the corner, which means many base area businesses like Slopeslide Grill will again open their doors and expand their service outside.
"It seems like we're twice as busy," bar manager Mike Maudlin said.
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