Mile Post: Economy proves resilient
In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, many Parkites feared the health crisis could topple the local economy. Non-essential businesses throughout the county were ordered to temporarily close. Unemployment skyrocketed to levels dwarfing even those seen during the Great Recession. The prospect of the tourism industry collapsing, leading to widespread business closures, was not far-fetched.
A year and a half later, it’s clear that nothing approximating a worst-case scenario ultimately materialized. Businesses reopened. Tourists came in the summer and again in the winter. Ski season not only happened but surpassed most expectations.
The Park City economy, in short, proved remarkably resilient.
As the second summer in the coronavirus era comes to a close, Parkites now have every reason to be optimistic, according to Jonathan Weidenhamer, City Hall’s economic development manager.
“At a high level, I would say we’ve recovered,” he said. “We’ve recovered in different ways. But in terms of performance, in terms of sales and sales tax, in terms of visitation, in terms of busyness and all the things that come with it, I think we’ve recovered to not even pre-coronavirus levels but actually to our best performance ever.”
One of the first indications that the pandemic would not sink the economy came last summer, when the town was busy despite concerns about the illness and the cancellations of the events that typically bring visitors such as the annual Fourth of July parade and the weekly Park Silly Sunday Market.
Weidenhamer said visitors drove from places as far flung as Texas and California in search of Park City’s abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, which many saw as a COVID-safe entertainment option. In past summers, visitors who drove to town typically came from within a three-hour radius.
Meanwhile, second-home owners — who either already had a home here or decided to buy one — viewed Park City as an ideal place to ride out the pandemic. Their contributions were crucial. They pumped money into the economy with each takeout order from a restaurant and every time they patronized a Main Street shop, said Erik Daenitz, the deputy budget director at City Hall.
“Inasmuch as that adds a persistent source of demand … that is a good thing, in that it creates a sort of base, a higher base, especially seen in the shoulder seasons,” he said. “That’s a trend we’ve been seeing in our models and in the empirical data.”
Those same factors remained at play throughout the winter. Despite concerns that the spread of the virus could force the mountain resorts to stop the lifts, as it did in March of 2020, the ski season not only started on time and continued through its scheduled end but saw Utah set a new record for skier days, with 5.3 million.
And now, at the tail end of another busy summer — this one aided by the COVID-19 vaccination effort and the return of large-scale events — Weidenhamer and Daenitz are optimistic that the economic momentum will persist.
That would be welcome news for Jennifer Wesselhoff, the president and CEO of the Park City/Chamber Bureau. She said the community has been fortunate to have weathered the pandemic better than many other places in the country but that the recovery has been uneven for some industries. She pointed to businesses such as restaurants, event producers, catering companies and meeting planners as ones that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
A strong fall shoulder season followed by a stellar winter could go a long way toward helping those industries get back to full strength — though a tight labor market now presents a different hurdle.
“The challenge now is just we don’t have enough employees to manage to that maximum capacity,” she said. “I don’t really know of many businesses at all who are operating at max capacity. Almost every business you talk to has vacancies.”
Still, compared to the outlook in the spring of 2020, the economic picture is remarkably positive, Weidenhamer and Daenitz said. And Parkites have every reason to believe that the turmoil that roiled the economy in 2020 is truly in the rear-view mirror.
At the same time, they can be assured that, even once the pandemic is over once and for all, many of its effects will remain, though not necessarily in a negative way.
Daenitz expects, for instance, that the trend of visitors making lodging reservations closer to a vacation rather than booking months in advance will continue, while restaurants that didn’t offer takeout prior to the pandemic are likely to provide that service going forward.
Those, he said, are just two of many examples of how a generational health crisis will leave a lasting mark on the Park City economy, even if it didn’t, ultimately, crush it.
“The impacts and effects of COVID,” he said, “are likely to be something that will stay with us in perpetuity.”
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