Park City coronavirus-era economy: the black swan landed, but it flew away quickly
Businesses adjusted as the sickness spread, leading to a strong comeback in past year
By the end of July of 2020, the spread of the novel coronavirus had already forced an early end to the 2019-2020 ski season in Park City, sent local unemployment soaring and left many in the community deeply concerned about the resort-driven economy.
John Kenworthy, a Main Street businessman, at the time provided an especially dire assessment. The Flanagan’s on Main owner that month declared “the black swan has landed,” using an economic term that describes an unexpected, havoc-causing event like the coronavirus. He had just left office after a term as the president of the board of directors of the Historic Park City Alliance, a group that represents the interests of businesses in the Main Street core, and he was worried people were scared. Some businesses opted not to reopen immediately after the spring shutdowns designed to curb the spread of the sickness, he noted at the time, adding that he was aware some Main Street employees had chosen not to return to work as they received added unemployment benefits.
But the fortunes changed quickly on Main Street and throughout much of the Park City economy. July ended as a solid month for business, and the numbers posted through the rest of the summer and through the fall were impressive. Even as there was such deep-rooted concern, there were variables in Park City’s favor that were not recognized immediately.
“The Black Swan landed here for sure. Thankfully, she only had a brief stop here and then moved on to the big cities where she squatted,” Kenworthy said in a prepared response on Thursday to a Park Record inquiry about the earlier statement, explaining that the Park City area did not suffer economically like elsewhere. “We were lucky. We went from early 2020 record high sales in Old Town to zero — in a blink. Nobody knew how we were going to land this pandemic. While we absorbed the early round onslaught we never lost property value. So while most of the country got hit by zero sales with a steep property value decline — our property values held. Actually our values increased.”
He said sales at Flanagan’s on Main dropped slightly in December from a typical year and were off sharply in January as the community suffered with the Sundance Film Festival having been held online rather than as an in-person event. The numbers in February, though, matched the best ever for that month in the 12-year history of the business. He said Flanagan’s on Main made adjustments to the operations that were influenced by the sickness.
“We adjusted our decades old business models to adhere to the new realities — the Covid -19 guidelines. I was quick to transform my basement lounge into dining space. Again we were lucky to have this additional flex space. We were actually able to increase our overall seating capacity and open these additional basement tables for both lunch and dinner,” he said.
The early end to the 2019-2020 ski season devastated what are normally strong weeks for business as crowds arrive for spring break. Most of the economic activity of the winter, though, had already been transacted by the mid-March shutdowns. The economic impact, then, was contained since the spring is typically the slowest stretch of the year anyway.
City Hall and Main Street businesses crafted plans for the summer and fall that were meant to attract people to the community even as steps were taken to curb the spread of the sickness. A key move involved launching weekly pedestrian days on Main Street. The thinking was people were more apt to gather in an outside setting that allows easier social distancing like a pedestrian environment.
It was still not clear whether Park City would draw visitors who might remain skittish about travel. As the warm weather arrived, it became apparent people saw outside activities like hiking and mountain biking as attractive options. The stretch from July until October was significantly busier than many had projected. Sales-tax numbers, an important economic indicator since they are charged on such a wide range of transactions, soared above projections and lodging numbers, another key economic indicator, were also stronger than expected.
“For some, I heard it’s been able to get them there, to feel comfortable making it to December,” Alison Kuhlow, the executive director of the Historic Park City Alliance, said in September about sales in the summer, adding “We’re all hopeful the winter season is going to surprise us.”
At Red Banjo Pizza, a longtime Main Street restaurant, the ownership responded to the economic uncertainty with operational changes. The restaurant added a delivery service and secured a liquor license from state alcohol regulators as it adjusted. The Red Banjo Pizza deck is open this winter at a time when it is normally closed and the restaurant offers curbside pickup, another addition for this ski season.
Tana Toly, whose family owns Red Banjo Pizza, said sales in December were off slightly and January numbers dropped without the Sundance crowds. The February sales figures were up while the numbers in the first 10 days of March were also up. She said sales during the ski season through the first 10 days of March were off by between 5% and 10% from a typical winter.
“Park City was a destination people wanted to go to,” Toly said, adding, “We’re grateful in that situation. We were all going one day at a time.”
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Park City Attorney Margaret Plane recently sent a memo to elected and appointed officials, as well as candidates in the City Hall election, cautioning them about making public statements regarding development proposals. The memo outlines that stands on planning and zoning matters could jeopardize a later process, such as when a decision by the Planning Commission is put to the City Council through an appeal.