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Mountain Town Businesses Cautiously Optimistic Heading Into Summer

After a strange and uncertain winter for tourism, business owners have their sights set on summer. This coming season could bring some much-needed traffic to hotels and restaurants. But the shifting economic landscape will present some new challenges. A report from Aspen.

The pandemic winter brought wave after wave of changing restrictions to restaurants in Aspen. That, plus sagging visitorship, meant an economically grim season for a lot of local eateries. Meat & Cheese, a restaurant and boutique food shop in downtown Aspen, broke even over the course of the past year.

"Oh my gosh, we need to make some money to make up all the months of not making money," said Meat & Cheese owner Wendy Mitchell. "All last year was kind of a wash."

Mitchell adapted to fluctuating rules and uncharted times with a patchwork of new services - take-out meal kits, dinner service in the adjacent cocktail bar she also owns - and survived the winter without any layoffs.

"It's not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow that's the hardest thing," she said. "You want to plan and you want to try and do a good job at what you're doing. You were reacting every moment of every day."

Now, with more people vaccinated and restrictions on their way out, Mitchell seems cautiously optimistic about economic prospects for this coming season. Local businesses like hers could be on the cusp of a major turning point. But after a year defined by uncertainty, she's keeping that optimism in check.

"You're hoping no more masks and you can fit more tables in your restaurants and people can sit at bars again," Mitchell said. "But now you're always kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Many local businesses are hoping that summer ushers in some deliverance. And there is some hard evidence that things could soon get better. Occupancy data from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association shows a strong stretch of hotel bookings through the summer months.

"With the ability for more life to take place outdoors, as well as loosened restrictions, there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Eliza Voss, the chamber's marketing director.

But even with things on the upswing, there are still the perennial challenges of running a business in this tourism-based economy. Even in a normal year, it's hard to find and keep employees. Jessica Valand, northwest Colorado director of workforce development for the state's labor department, said this year might be even tougher than usual.

"There's this anticipated influx of demand in the customer service industry and a real panic for employers - where on earth am I going to find people to work these jobs?" Valand said. "And that seems heightened to me, all across the board, compared to what we've dealt with previously."

Valand, an expert in mountain town labor economics, said it is getting harder for people to find a place to live. The price of housing in Colorado's resort towns has been going up for a while - but with a surge of remote workers and new transplants during the pandemic, it has very rapidly been getting harder for resort-town workers to live anywhere near their places of employment, especially in the hospitality sector.

"Let's say you have a restaurant in Aspen and you're looking to staff up for what you expect to be a busy summer season," Valand said. "Where is that waiter or waitress going to live to make it worth their while to get all the way into Aspen, to work those shifts that you need them to work in order to maximize your revenue as a restaurant?"

Valand says the past year has brought about unprecedented change to the rate at which housing prices have gone up to exclude Aspen's workforce. Scarcity of housing and skyrocketing costs are pushing workers further and further away from Aspen - with some even priced out of mid-valley communities.

"Typically, housing advocates would say, in an ideal world, you're not spending more than a third of your take-home pay on housing," Valand said. "Which, I think, in most mountain communities just sounds absolutely laughable."

Local business owners who depend on locally-based workers to keep their operations running are noticing the impact of the housing shortage on their employees.

"Everyone that works for me is constantly like, 'Oh my God, I'm losing my place or their rent's going up a thousand a month,'" said Wendy Mitchell, the owner of Meat & Cheese. "It's crazy."

Mitchell says she has mostly been lucky to have employees who stick around for years on end. But with the summer right around the corner, she knows she's going to need extra hands to get through the busy season.

"Something always happens in the summer," she said. "Like all these people will just sort of flood the town like at the last minute when you think, 'Oh my God, I don't have enough people.' And then they show up and so it all works out. So hopefully that happens again."

Valand, the labor economist, said the circumstances of the pandemic era might make Aspen's summer hiring squeeze even more difficult than usual. As of mid-May, the unemployment rate in Pitkin County hovered around 6% - a figure that might seem tough to square, considering there were about 700 advertised jobs in the county at the same time.

"Some speculation has been that with the additional $300 a week supplement to unemployment insurance, people have a little bit more of a cushion to kind of sit it out and wait and see what makes sense for them," she said. "There's not as much urgency to get back into the labor force."

Mitchell cites good benefits as part of her success with retention, but many lower-paying jobs are having trouble attracting workers to low-wage jobs in light of that unemployment funding.

Valand said many businesses who typically rely on an influx of seasonal workers as spring turns into summer may be in for a surprise given the current circumstances.

"If you're looking to hire someone and you're anticipating an increase in your volume around June 1," she said. "You needed to have hired that person last week."

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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

This story was written in partnership with Aspen Public Radio, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.