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Blaine County’s Economy Recovers from the COVID Downturn | Special sections

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Blaine County hard shortly after its outbreak in the winter of 2020. Early on, the county was a coronavirus hotspot that came into the spotlight as a remote Idaho location where the disease has affected numerous residents and visitors alike.

It wasn’t long before people were told to wear protective masks and stay away from others. Like many American mountain resorts, the Sun Valley Resort has closed the ski season prematurely. Restaurants and other shops had to temporarily shut down or significantly reduce their operations. The trip stopped and the hotels were empty. In spring 2020, trade in most major economic sectors was slowed to a trickle and picked up only slightly in early summer.

“We were obviously beaten up in the beginning,” said Harry Griffith, executive director of the nonprofit Sun Valley Economic Development.

Now, about 18 months later, Blaine County’s economy has largely recovered but is still showing some “pockets of weakness,” Griffith said.

“I think we did well,” he said. “I think the positives outweigh the negatives.”

In addition, Griffith said, the county’s economy has undergone some “structural changes,” some of which have benefited businesses and residents.

The extent of the pandemic downturn is evident in Griffith’s analysis of local option tax collections in Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley (Figure 3). The three resorts levy taxes on a range of goods and services as a state-sanctioned means to offset the economic impact of large numbers of visitors. LOT collections are widely used as an indicator of economic activity.

By February 2020, the LOT collections in the three cities had surpassed those of February 2019, exceeding $ 800,000. In 2019 – which was viewed as a solid, non-pandemic base year for economic activity – LOT collections that month were less than $ 700,000. Although LOT collections began to decline in  -ril after the busy winter tourism season ended, they fell below $ 200,000 in  -ril 2020. In  -ril 2019, they were registered at around $ 400,000.

After a sub-par summer in 2020, the economy began to rebound with a slightly above-average decline and a slightly falling winter, as the LOT data shows. In 2021, LOT collections had fully recovered by March when COVID-19 vaccines and falling cases renewed confidence in travel and spending. From March to June 2021, LOT collections increased each month from the 2019 numbers and stayed strong throughout the summer.

Similar tendencies towards recovery can be seen in the data on employment, wages and indicators for commuting and travel. Traffic between Hailey and Ketchum – the county’s main commuter corridor – has far exceeded 2020 levels in most months in 2021 and 2018 and 2019, according to data from the Idaho Department of Transportation (Figure 4). Traffic north of Ketchum spiked in July and August 2020, possibly suggesting a high number of travelers fleeing to the mountains after being largely quarantined by the pandemic this spring.

Blaine County's economy recovers from the COVID downturn 4

Air traffic at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey has also recovered, the data shows. Since  -ril, commercial aircraft at the airport have exceeded the monthly numbers in 2019. The numbers had fallen sharply after the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. General aviation landings at the airport have also increased this year.

A major factor in the recovery, Griffith said, is an inflow of COVID aid money from the federal government to Blaine County. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – known as the CARES Act – passed in late March 2020, raised $ 139 million in Blaine County, according to an analysis of Sun Valley’s economic development (Figure 2).

Blaine County's economy is recovering from the COVID downturn 2

Funding for the CARES bill brought Blaine County $ 74 million through the Paycheck Protection Program, which gave companies low-interest loans to keep their payroll up and keep their employees working during the pandemic. If the companies kept their workforce and wages, the loans could be canceled.  -proximately $ 31 million came from infrastructure grants for things like broadband projects and funding the public bus system. Another $ 23 million came in the form of increased unemployment benefits.

The CARES funding, which accounts for around 7% of the gross domestic product of US $ 2 billion, has now been followed by funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed in March of this year. By August, that COVID relief brought $ 39 million to Blaine County (Figure 1). The federal government has allocated  -proximately $ 29 million in PPP funding, $ 6 million in increased unemployment benefits, and $ 3 million in infrastructure-like projects and programs. Municipalities also received funding.

Blaine County's economy recovers from the COVID downturn 1

Without the aid from the two federal programs, Blaine County’s economy would not have recovered as much, Griffith said.

“We would have been in a deep, dark hole,” he said.

“Many thousands” of jobs in Blaine County have been saved and incomes have been saved by PPP funding, Griffith said.

“It kept people on the payroll,” he said.

The “structural changes” in the economy identified by Griffith have influenced the recovery, he said. The pandemic has brought many new residents to Blaine County, some of whom work remotely, and second home owners are spending more time in the area, he said. At the same time, some residents have moved – in part because of the lack of affordable housing – and there is a great shortage of workers, he noted. In addition, the so-called “lazy” seasons of spring and autumn were busier than normal with high visitor numbers, second home owners spending more time in their second homes and new residents.

The changes have boosted some sectors of the economy but – with the impact of the pandemic – hurt others, Griffith said. The new residents have contributed to a boom in the real estate industry that posted record sales in 2020. They have also encouraged high demand in the construction industry and the related trades, which for their part find it difficult to meet this demand. If a landowner wants to build a luxury home in Blaine County, they’ll likely have to wait until 2024, Griffith said.

Harry Griffith

http: www.ntexpress.comWirtschaftsgipfel October 30, 2018. Harry Griffith


“I think the positives [in the rebound] somehow the negative predominate. “

Harry Griffith

“This sector has come back like a freight train,” he said.

The occupancy rate in accommodations was higher than ever last summer, Griffith said.

Meanwhile, there are some downsides to recovery. The g – between the haves and the haves widened, putting Blaine County at the top of the list of places with the greatest income inequality, Griffith said. The lodging, hospitality and restaurant sectors have taken a little longer to recover compared to others and the restaurant industry continues to suffer from stress.

“In general, the restaurant industry has seen the worst,” said Griffith.

In the Wood River Valley, 13 restaurants recently closed permanently, announced their closings, or threatened to close, Griffith said. That’s “a pretty big number,” he said, and higher than the average closure rate. The restaurant industry has been severely affected by the wider labor shortage, Griffith said, which has resulted in reduced operating days and hours, menu cuts and stress on staff.

However, there are exceptions. Despite personnel challenges, some restaurants reported above-average business last summer.

Although some sectors are still recovering, the overall outlook for Blaine County’s economy is good, Griffith said. More federal funding is likely to come. Events suspended by the pandemic will be held again. New residents are spending and will likely bring in new visitors themselves. New commercial investors have discovered opportunities in the Wood River Valley and new development projects – including a hotel and affordable housing project in Ketchum – are “piling up,” Griffith said.

“We will see a lot of cranes,” he said.

Strong hotel bookings for December and January are contributing to the positive outlook, Griffith said.

At the same time, the Sun Valley Resort has recovered well, Griffith said. Sales of the multi-resort Epic Pass, of which Sun Valley is a partner, reached a record number this year. Last year, Sun Valley sold a record number of mountain passes and had a record number of skiers last winter, Griffith said.

“I don’t see any reason why this year shouldn’t be on an equal footing,” he said.

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