Tourism bright spot for Baker’s economy in 2009
Chamber of Commerce director says some businesses reported banner sales despite the national recession
The recession of 2009 turned out to be a Chicken Little story of sorts in Baker County, with strong tourism sales making up for declines in other sectors of the economy, according to the Baker County Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber Director Debi Bainter said many businesses experienced a slow start in 2009, but ended up beating their 2008 sales figures.
“June through August were strong tourism months with high visitor numbers at the Chamber of Commerce and up at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center,” Bainter said.
Gift shops at both the Interpretive Center and the Chamber of Commerce had banner sales months through September, and business didn’t slow until snow began to fall and visitor numbers dropped, Bainter said.
“I have heard from more than one business that (2009) was their best year yet,” Bainter said.
“Baker County’s (non-seasonally adjusted) unemployment rate has not risen above 10 percent during this recession, proving our mix of retail and manufacturing businesses are appropriate,” Bainter said.Cultural Heritage tourism
Cultural heritage tourism, which accounts for 78 percent of all leisure travel in the United States, is a big draw in Baker County.
The county lures visitors interested in the county’s historical ties to the Oregon Trail, and the cattle-ranching and gold-mining industries, Bainter said.
According to a study conducted by the Mandala Research for the U.S. Cultural and Heritage Tourism Marketing Council and U.S. Department of Commerce, 118.3 million adults participate in heritage travel each year, spending an average of $994 per trip, for a total annual contribution of $194 billion to the U.S. economy.
In Baker County, Bainter said heritage tourism is complemented by recreational tourism, which provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to start new businesses ranging from Prospectors Frontier Inn Bed and Breakfast on Court Avenue a half block off Main Street, to the Earth and Vine art gallery, restaurant and wine shop, located in the historic Pythian Castle building one block off Main Street at the corner of First and Washington.
“I am also aware of a retiree that will be starting a tour operator business in Baker County,” Bainter said, adding that the operator plans to lead tours to Hells Canyon and guide hikes and supply transportation services.
“With Oregonians sticking closer to home for their vacations these days we stand to benefit when they are exploring their home state,” Bainter said.
Heritage and cultural travelers reported traveling more than five times a year, with about half of those trips 500 miles or more over a weekend or longer, and about a third of their travels being day trips of 100 to 300 miles, according to Mandala Research.
Nearly two-thirds of Baker County workers are employed in the retail sector, and any gains in tourism will benefit their bottom lines, Bainter said.
In the four years Bainter has been at the Chamber, membership has grown from 345 to 430, and this year the board of directors initiated an incentive plan designed to capture more of the estimated 1,200 area businesses.
Businesses in Baker City joining the Chamber in 2009 included Wheatland Insurance Center, The Flower Box, Great Northern Energy Systems, Prospectors Frontier Inn Bed and Breakfast, Five Star Towing, BC Auto Salvage, J&M Properties, Baker City Motel and RV Park, Cutters Edge, The Elkhorn Classic Stage Race, Quail Ridge Gold Course, Maurices, Pythian Castle Gallery, Earth & Vine, Country Insurance agent Cindy Endicott, The Entrepreneurs Source and Beaver State Computers.
Others in Baker City include All Pro Rentals, Mark & Son Refrigeration and Heating, Sagebrush Studio Design, Clark and Company Home, DeJaVu Collectables, Dream Scroller woodworks, The Rusty Nail grandfather clocks, Culley’s Catering, Black Lyon Publishing, Pioneer Media, Sha-Schevelle, The Quilt Maker, Always Welcome Inn, Elkhorn Adult Foster Home and Oregon Awards and Engraving, and Eastern Oregon Celtic Society.
Sumpter businesses joining the Chamber in 2009 included Sumpter Breakfast Club, Rita Bach room rentals, High Mountain Towing, and Scoop and Steamer Restaurant and Log Cabin Rentals.
Marty Lien’s Vacation Rental in Haines, Parker Cabin in North Powder, Pine Eagle Clinic in Halfway, as well as Union Pacific Corp. out of Portland, Pioneer Media, Aspen Digital, and Carly Carlson Photography also joined the Chamber in 2009.
Some of the new businesses that opened in 2009 include Cody’s General Store; The Treasure Box; Baker City Muffler; Sycamore Tree Flower Shop; Sage Place Barber; Prospector’s Inn Bed and Breakfast; E.O.R. Welding and Fabricating; Elkhorn Adult Foster Home; Electrolysis by Robin Harrington; Sha-Schevelle salon and women’s shop; Hollis-Shade Associates property management; Wilson Dental Arts; and Shifty Skateboards and Tattoos.
More businesses opened in Baker City than closed, but the recession was cited as a contributing factor for those that did close in 2009, including Barb and Betty’s Hallmark Store; The Fillin’ Station Restaurant; the Paul Crites Gallery and a few others.
Boots Leonard, who managed the Paul Crites Gallery, opened her own Western gallery and store at the location, but she closed before the year was out and moved her business to Pendleton. She said she was offered a great location next to the Rainbow Cafe and across Main Street from Hamley’s Western store and restaurant.
The Chamber sold nearly $6,000 in Baker Bucks in the month leading up to the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Bainter said the Chamber’s board of directors wants to keep the momentum of the Baker Bucks program going throughout 2010 as an economic stimulus that “gives all of Baker County a reason to be optimistic” because it keeps local dollars circulating locally.
Other Chamber goals for 2010 include partnering with other nonprofit groups in Eastern Oregon to offer an affordable health coverage option (a shared cost of less than $75 per month to the employer and employee) for small businesses that otherwise could not offer a program to their employees.
Bainter said she’s also planning to convert the Chamber’s billing system to the Weblink connect software to take advantage of its better data-tracking capabilities for future budget planning at the Chamber and for members.
In addition, the Chamber is planning to update the visitor Kiosk posters outside the Chamber Office and Visitors Information Center to complement the community walk that was installed by the Ford Leadership cohorts a year ago.