Skamania on the move

County has seen spikes in tourism and retail sales

While nationwide, retail numbers took an unexpected nosedive in April, several businesses in Skamania County reported higher-than-expected sales headed into spring.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated national retail and food services sales for the month were down 0.2 percent.

But Clark County’s neighbor to the east is hopping – and "the season" hasn’t even started, said Casey Roeder, executive director of the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce.

Stevenson’s Big River Grill recently celebrated its two most successful days in 14 years of business, and February and March were Rivertown Antiques’ best months since last spring, said owner Jim Price.

Price said the store’s strong months should have been July through September, but instead, he saw a steady increase in sales in the dreary end of winter – and they’ve been climbing since.

"February should have been a relatively slow month, but I was totally blown away, and March was the same way," he said.

Sales starting in those months were 15 percent to 20 percent higher than those in the same time period a year ago.

Joe Schlick, who owns the Big River Grill with his wife Patty, said one day in February and one in May were the two biggest days in the restaurant’s history. The couple also owns Joe’s El Rio, which sits across the street from the grill.

The Big River Grill has seen consistent, manageable growth every year since it opened in 1993, but Schlick said the record day in February was "totally unusual."

"You would expect those days to be in July and August, because we usually have twice as much business in the summer than winter," he said. "That leads me to think the summer is going to be nuts."

Joe’s El Rio has also experienced significant growth in the last six years, Schlick added.

According to the most recent numbers from the state Department of Revenue, the county had a knockout last quarter of 2006. Compared to the same quarter of 2005, its taxable retail sales were up 27.6 percent from $19.7 million to $25.2 million – the third biggest percentage leap by a county in the state.

Its retail trade, broken out, was up 35.2 percent from $3.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2005 to $4.6 million the same time period in 2006.

Prior to the fourth quarter, taxable retail sales in the county steadily declined throughout 2006.

Looking at the rest of the region, Clark County’s total taxable retail sales were up 1 percent from $1.25 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005 to $1.26 billion in 2006, and Cowlitz County’s numbers were up 11.3 percent from $326 million in 2005 to $363 million in 2006.

Most other counties had between 2 percent and 12 percent growth, with a few outliers.

And Washington saw healthy taxable retail sales growth of 6.7 percent growth during the same time period.

All taxable retail sales includes retailing, services, contracting (construction), manufacturing, transportation, communications, utilities, wholesaling, finance, insurance and real estate.

Retail trade includes taxable sales of building materials and hardware, general merchandise, food, auto dealers, apparel, furnishings and retail stores. This number more accurately depicts consumer purchases, according to the Department of Revenue.

These are the most recent figures available from the DOR.

Skamania County’s estimated population in 2006 was 10,833.

Tourists mean sales

Roeder said an increase in spending in Skamania County is likely due to tourism, on which the county has become dependent.

And according to the state Department of Community Trade and Economic Development, the county has seen a marked increase in tourism spending in the last 15 years.

Since 1991, travel spending in Skamania County has increased at a rate of 11.8 percent a year from $11.3 million to $53.5 million in 2005 – a 373.5 percent increase and the highest rate of growth in the state by far, according to the most recent study commissioned by CTED.

More current information by county will be available in September, and the next statewide report will be released in January.

Clark County saw a 122 percent increase in travel spending, compared to 87.9 percent in King County and 105 percent in Walla Walla County during the same time period.

The tourism has positively benefited all businesses in Skamania County, and the new economic vitality has encouraged a number of new businesses. The county Chamber of Commerce saw a spike in membership during the last year – up 14 percent, Roeder said.

"For a little chamber of about 250 members, that’s a big jump," she said.

Schlick said winter tourism is increasing thanks to marketing pushes by the Chamber of Commerce and Stevenson Business Assoc., but said the retail success in the county is a combination of factors – all centered on tourism.

North Bonneville City Planner Tom Jermann said once a timber county, the area is now almost solely reliant on tourism.

The closing of several mills coincided with the opening of the Skamania Lodge, which allowed for some continued economic vitality.

The smaller Bonneville Hot Springs Resort in North Bonneville came online in 2002 and Carson Mineral Hot Springs in Carson, Wash., is nearly ready to open a new hotel and restaurant.

The success of the resorts factors into the success of area businesses. Overnight stays at the resorts are increasing, spurring a trickle-down effect for the other area businesses, Roeder said.

"I can only speak for myself, but when the (Skamania) Lodge is busy, we’re busy," Schlick said.

About 85 percent of the shoppers at Rivertown Antiques are day trippers from Vancouver and Portland, Price said.

"We do get a lot of return business, but most customers are people who are visiting the Gorge for the day," he said.

Folks have gotten used to paying high gas prices, and increased visibility of the county has resulted in more tourism – crucial in the antiques business, he added.

Lauren Burroughs, who recently opened The Potting Shed, said Stevenson’s business community has bloomed in the last five years.

"More people are moving here and the Portland-Vancouver area is just expanding," she said. "The more it expands, the more people travel and move."

Burroughs said lately, people spend less time taking big, expensive trips, opting for more weekend trips, which may account for the area’s popularity with tourists. Stevenson’s location is prime for getaways from the city, she said.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the level of sophistication of business owners in the county was quite low, Price said.

"That has changed dramatically," he said. "The kinds of people who own businesses here now are much more sophisticated, marketing much better and business-savvy. It’s really come a long way because of the people who are willing to open and take a gamble with a new business."

More people, more spending

The area also has experienced a boom in residential growth, said Peggy Bryan, executive director of the Skamania County Economic Development Council, and commercial growth traditionally follows residential growth.

In 2005, Skamania County issued 113 residential building permits compared to 116 in 2006, not including its two biggest towns Stevenson and North Bonneville.

The city of Stevenson issued 20 single family dwelling permits and two for duplexes in 2005, and in 2006, it issued 15. In 2005, North Bonneville issued 15 permits, and the city issued 25 residential permits and one commercial permit in 2006.

Jermann said the 886-person town has grown at a rate of about 100 people per year, nearly doubling in the last six years.

He supposed retirees looking for a better way of life and 30-something commuters making good wages who like peace and quiet account for the residential growth.

"Unlike other areas, real estate hasn’t slowed down here," Jermann said.

Roeder said she was hesitant to say the boost in residential growth directly accounted for the spike in taxable retail sales at the end of 2006 because many residents continue to shop in larger cities.