For Methow Valley businesses, the bottom line is disaster preparedness
By Don Nelson
Call it a hard-earned lesson — harder for some than others — about preparedness and the vagaries of nature.
The Carlton Complex Fire’s impact on the Methow Valley economy was in some cases instant, severe and lasting; in others, moderate and repairable, if not entirely recoverable. And some were only inconvenienced or interrupted.
All of which makes it difficult to distill a single answer to the question of how Methow Valley businesses were impacted by the fires. It depends on whom you ask.
Looking forward, however, just about everyone you ask has the same answer: We’ll be more prepared next time.
In the meantime, by some indicators the valley has rebounded remarkably well, especially in the critical category of tourism.
“Through a combination of circumstances and events, we are recovering well,” said Julie Muyllaert, vice president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, member of the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR) organization, and co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport in Winthrop.
The circumstances and events included:
- State money contributed to a short-term burst of marketing last fall, aimed at the Seattle market with the intent of convincing people to visit the Methow.
- A heavy snowfall around Thanksgiving last year established enough of a base to ensure Nordic skiing would be viable into the spring.
- The North Cascades Highway opened unusually early, and visitors took advantage of that to begin filling up local rooms before May.
- Before a run of 90-degree-plus days descended on the valley, tolerable weather continued to lure tourists.
- Rebuilding has created non-stop work for many valley residents in the construction industry, as anyone who’s tried to hire a contractor might tell you.
- Meanwhile, the Winthrop and Twisp chambers of commerce, and other tourism-promoting organizations in Okanogan County and North Central Washington, kept pounding away with the message that “we are open for business.”
“It was very intentional, and very lucky,” Muyllaert said. But, she added, “we are still recovering.”
Kristen Smith, marketing director for both the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce and Methow Trails, said that the fires were a reminder about what can happen in a place that depends on predictable winters and summers for its livelihood.
“We learned a lot, and now we are more realistic about this being our climate,” Smith said. “We hope businesses are taking what they learned and implementing it.”
“For our community, it was a wake-up call about where we live,” said Amy Stork, executive director of TwispWorks and also a MVLTR committee member.
For all that, by some measurements it may appear that nothing problematic happened.
“Ironically, 2014 was a record-breaking year” for Winthrop in terms of hotel/motel occupancy taxes and retail sales tax collected, Smith said.
The trend is continuing in 2015. Year to date, hotel/motel tax revenues in Winthrop are up 24 percent over 2014, while retail sales taxes are up 17 percent over last year. “And those are really winter numbers,” Smith said. “It’s just crazy.”
Smith believes that the hard-core base of Methow Valley fans will find a reason to get here if they can, despite the potential for nature to intervene in their outdoor activities.
“Last year, there was smoke everywhere [in the Pacific Northwest], she said, “so you might as well go to a place you love.”
Stork said last summer’s challenges may have a positive consequence in that they highlighted the valley’s urgent need for economic development planning.
“It can be somewhat difficult to sort our long-term [economic] challenges in the Methow versus our fire-related vulnerabilities,” Stork said. “Those vulnerabilities are exacerbated in an economy that is already susceptible to disruption.”
Echoing Muyllaert, Stork said that the valley was “very lucky” that, overall, the economy pulled out rapidly.
But the broader picture doesn’t necessarily reflect what happened on a case-by-case basis to local businesses.
The eight days in July 2014 when the valley was without electricity was a gut-punch for some local businesses. Restaurants saw food go bad. Central Reservations reported that it had to cancel and refund thousands of dollars worth of reservations. Sun Mountain Lodge took a $1 million hit in lost business and inventory. None of those things are recoverable, especially if they were not covered by insurance.
Hence the current emphasis on readiness and preparedness. “The crisis brought to the fore what we all knew … about the need to have a reserve in place,” Stork said. “You can’t buy a $400 generator if you don’t have something in reserve.”
“I feel that people are very aware and vigilant,” Stork added. “They are doing things to be prepared. The lessons of last year are not fading away.”
Indeed, the lessons are now being applied in a valley-wide effort to make long-term economic development planning not just an idea but a reality. The Twisp and Winthrop chambers are teaming up to gather ideas — from residents and business owners — for economic development in the Methow Valley. They have also been conducting their own research into what employers and employees need to create a healthy local economy.
“The fire was an impetus to do that project,” Stork said.
Stork said that long-standing, persistent challenges to meaningful economic development were identified quickly: the need for a more year-round economy, and the need for affordable housing.
“We have this beautiful amenity-driven economy,” Stork said. “But we need a way for people to live here.”
The valley can take advantage of its strengths — notably its ability to work well as a community — to develop an economic development plan that could cushion the impact of future disasters, Stork said. The long-term recovery organization’s work so far “has been an incredibly cohesive effort,” she said.
The Methow Valley has been selected as a pilot site for a new initiative called the Local Investment Opportunity Network (LION), which is designed to help businesses that need cash to launch or expand.
LION connects businesses with individuals willing to lend them money for an agreed-upon interest rate, or even for products or store coupons, according to Jordan Tampien, a community economic development specialist with Washington State University (WSU) Extension, which is coordinating the program. LION facilitates meetings between businesses seeking financing and those interested in investing, as well as overall education for businesses and investors, said Tampien.
All the recovery efforts point to an encouraging underlying strength in the Methow Valley, Stork said. “Something so large can really shake your sense of community,” she said of the fires.
In the Methow Valley’s case, Stork said, disaster instead has solidified the community’s most-important connections.
Click to see more articles from our Carlton Complex Fire 1-year anniversary section