Summer winds down at the South Shore |

Summer winds down at the South Shore

Adam Jensen / Tahoe Daily TribuneTahoe Keys resident Emily Forrest pulls her boat - "Little by Little" - out of the water for the season at the Tahoe Keys Marina on Friday afternoon.

Fewer layoffs and rising imports were signs this week that the worst recession since the 1930s is easing nationally, but doubts about whether an economic recovery will be felt anytime soon in South Lake Tahoe remain.

Area business representatives painted a mixed picture about how the economy fared this summer, months that can make or break South Lake Tahoe businesses.

“I don’t know where it’s consistent,” Carol Chaplin, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, said of area lodging properties this summer. “Not all of the properties were saying the same thing. Generally speaking, the overall comment is that we are tracking down, but it could have been worse.”

A snapshot of economic conditions released by the Federal Reserve on Wednesday indicated economic activity has continued to stabilize in July and August, but notes tourism in California and Nevada was weak during those months.

Travel to the area is admittedly down, but the decline is in line with other regional tourist draws, like Napa, Monterey and Reno, Chaplin said.

“We are not doing poorly compared to other destinations; not the best but not the worst,” Chaplin said.

Traditionally busy weekends at Lake Tahoe – especially Labor Day – still did well this summer, but the number of visitors for the rest of the summer didn’t always meet expectations, said Jerry Bindel, president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association.

“Extremely rate-sensitive” customers, shorter stays and some schools starting their year earlier combined to keep this summer from hitting traditional earnings goals, Bindel said.

“We just didn’t hit on all cylinders this year,” Bindel said.

This summer’s American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament and Harveys Outdoor Concert Series were “really strong draws,” said Chaplin, who added she received encouraging attendance numbers for events like America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride.

The positive turnouts bode well for the drive-up market that Tahoe depends on, but the recession was definitely weighing on the pocketbooks of travelers, Chaplin said.

“They definitely didn’t want to give up their vacation, but were looking for ways to make it affordable,” Chaplin said.

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Jerry Birdwell, who owns the Black Bear Inn, said many guests opted to book last-minute, a departure from previous years.

While the business is appreciated, the trend is concerning because the last-minute bookings make it difficult to plan for the future, Birdwell said. It’s a trend that appears will continue into the winter.

Bookings at the Black Bear Inn are down 30 to 40 percent from last year, and people haven’t begun booking for the Christmas holiday, something that would usually be happening by this time of year, Birdwell said.

Although concern about the economy remains prevalent among business owners, there’s only so much that can be done considering the economic circumstances, Birdwell said.

“We all just buckle up and live with it; that’s what we do,” Birdwell said.

Although a full recovery is likely years off, Bindel was hopeful people who limited vacations, or skipped them altogether, this year will boost the economy by next summer because of their pent-up demand.

But Bindel tempered his comments by saying he didn’t anticipate the expected uptick would be enough to bring back the year-round, full-time positions that have been lost in town since the recession, Bindel said.

“It’s still pretty slow-moving in that respect, in the jobs,” Bindel said. “I think employers have to see more than just one season to say, ‘yeah, we’re out of this thing.'”

Fall events like October’s Kokanee Salmon Festival and Oktoberfest could help business during the fall shoulder season, but a strong winter is likely going to be a key component to getting the South Shore economy headed in the right direction, Chaplin said.

Chaplin was hopeful she had seen the bottom of the recession, but said she was not entirely convinced.

Despite the uncertain future, South Tahoe Chamber of Commerce President David Kelly said he’s heard little griping from member businesses.

“You don’t hear a lot of complaining,” Kelly said. “Everybody’s working too hard just to keep their head above water. I think that’s a lot of it.”

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