In Winthrop, the pandemic has been good for business.
Yet some town merchants say they and the town were woefully unprepared to handle the size and behavior of the crowds.
Winthrop’s joined the big leagues, becoming yet another tourist town struggling to keep tourism from shredding the cultural fabric and degrading the livability of the host community. The large influx triggered by the pandemic is a stress test of our human and physical infrastructure’s capacity to support our tourism economy.
Have we been shown the Methow’s future as a tourist mecca? Or is this merely a COVID-driven one-off? Either way, we’re learning something about our fitness for the tourist trade.
Many Winthrop merchants are breaking sales records. By the end of May, the town’s 3% share of the hotel/motel tax alone had brought in $78,179. That’s $21,641 more than the same time last year.
In 2016, the tax produced $39,542 by the end of May and just under $178,000 annually. A decade ago, it was $19,349 by the end of May and nearly $110,000, at year’s end. In 2021, this tax, paid by visitors, is expected to bring in at least $180,000.
The retail sales tax, paid by everyone, is expected to bring in $355,000 by year’s end, $85,654 more than a decade ago. By the end of May, it had produced 52.3% of the expected annual town income from this tax.
These tax receipts tell a success story. It started in 1972, when Winthrop opened its arms to visitors arriving via the newly opened North Cascades Highway. Today Winthrop is home to North America’s largest groomed Nordic trail system and the valley is a year-round, multi-sport recreation mecca.
No one foresaw today’s surfeit of traffic nor the shortages of labor and affordable housing.
Residents nixed routing Highway 20 on the west side of the Methow River, where skaters now glide on an outdoor, refrigerated ice rink. Today the unpoliced traffic backup at the four-way stop in downtown Winthrop can stretch to the Thriftway grocery store on one end of town and the rhythm-and-blues concert grounds on the other. Tempers flare.
The place to be
During the pandemic, some urbanites forced to work at home apparently decided the Methow was the place to do it. They’re in the mix that’s fueled eye-popping real estate price increases triggered by people fleeing urban life, pricing out ever more local buyers.
Some merchants delayed opening or cut back business hours because they couldn’t find workers. Apparently, not enough workers live in the Methow to support the demands of our retail/tourist economy. They can’t find housing and likely couldn’t afford it if they did.
As a business plan, this mismatch seems unsustainable.
At its worst, an unanticipated deluge of mask-less, uncommonly “rude,” tourists swarmed over Winthrop’s boardwalks, raising hackles, merchants say, while trails filled with visitors who often reacted suspiciously to friendly greetings.
Nothing magic about this Methow.
Winthrop Chamber of Commerce president Abeline Hagee, who runs Trail’s End Bookstore, is upbeat about Winthrop as a business venue. But until recently, she says, “Every morning I would wake up preparing myself for someone to be horrible.” Most of the trouble merchants have had with visitors is about masks, they say.
Greg Wright, co-owner of the Iron Horse hat store, says he thinks Winthrop experienced “revenge tourism” by people angry about pandemic restrictions.
But he’s told the town council and mayor that he faults them for not being more pro-active in attending to the problems inherent in hosting tourists. Better provisions must be made for disposal of garbage and dog waste and for traffic control, and the town needs clearer messaging to make things easier and more welcoming for visitors, he argues.
Handling the stress
Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau lived in Estes Park, Colorado, for 40 years and has a background in retail. “One of the reasons I’m mayor is because I don’t want Winthrop to become Estes Park,” she says. That town grew, unconstrained, to become unrecognizable. “They had no planning in place.”
She’s trying to learn how many more people can live in Winthrop given the constraints on the town’s water supply; Winthrop’s grown from 380 to 500 residents in the last decade. The sewer system needs upgrading and an abandoned well must be rehabilitated for backup should the town’s single, aging well fail, she says.
The town well is on the west side of the river. The only means of delivering water to downtown and residents east of the Methow and Chewuch rivers is a leaking pipe — in “urgent” need of replacement — hanging under the bridge near the Winthrop Physical Therapy and Fitness building, says the mayor.
A hurdle to addressing problems caused by tourism is that hotel/motel tax income is restricted to spending on marketing, Ranzau explains. Praiseworthy efforts are afoot to get legislative approval allowing that money to be used to solve tourism-created health and sanitation problems — i.e., garbage disposal and restrooms.
The town is hiring a third police officer, she adds, which should help with traffic control. But Ranzau rejects as unwelcoming the suggestions that the town post signs urging visitors to “be kind.”
Tourist towns everywhere are writing their own versions of this story. Often it’s one of culture clash and mismanaged tourism economies.
Maybe stress on small tourist towns is just what happens when Americans are confined to their own country.
Or is it a wake-up call? Hello?
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.