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Economic immunity

Nathan Rodriguez

From all obvious signs, Eagle County residents seem more insulated from a stagnant economy than most communities. The subprime mortgage crisis hasnt really impacted real estate in the valley as it has other parts of the state and country. Rising gas prices havent slowed the caravan of SUVs down major roadways. And as of the time of publication, there havent been any sightings of 1930s-style Hooverville camps along I-70.It begs the question: How have Eagle County businesses fared during this so-called economic slump?What economic slump? asked Robert Milfeld, owner of Airport Limos, Suburbans & Sedans of Vail. Its not affecting me a whole lot for the time being. I just add a fuel surcharge on trips, and the customers have probably made so much money off oil futures anyway, so who cares?Milfeld is handling transportation for CNN at the Democratic Convention in Denver, which he says makes it a much better year for him than most. He added he purchased a new limo and has been able to charge more per trip, which has offset a small drop-off in some retail business.The only change has been with weddings, he said. I havent been hearing from wedding planners as much. I still get weddings, but two years ago I was getting requests for Mondays and Wednesdays, and not nearly as much this year.So are people are cutting back on lavish weddings?Actually, Ive had more weddings this summer than last, said Carolyn Moorman, owner of Artisan Events in Edwards. I think were dealing with an income bracket that hasnt been touched a great deal as far as destination weddings go.People in the area havent stopped applying for loans, either.Its been an excellent year, said Mary McDougall, executive vice president of First Bank in Vail. Were in really good shape compared to other lenders, she said, adding that many other banks in the state have experienced problems now that homeowners are having problems keeping up with the subprime mortgages that were popular just a few years ago. As for the lending business, McDougall said she hadnt seen a drop-off in loan applications. We still have an active lending clientele, with steady consumer and commercial lending.Another seemingly good indicator of economic health is if people are still getting out and about. The travel business is excellent, said Jan Strauch, president of Carson Wagonlit Travel in Edwards. People are still traveling to exotic places and spending money. Prices still seem to be reasonable for airline tickets your impression would be with high gas prices a ticket to New York might be $1,000 or something, but its only $350, about the same as last year.Strauch believes perceptions about the economy say more about a persons outlook.Its about how people think: Are you generally pessimistic or optimistic? he said. We went out for dinner the other night and couldnt get in. Lots of places were packed, and this wasnt even supposed to be a busy night. Local businesses seem to be doing well, and people are out having a good time.The same goes for the I-70 corridor. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, three traffic records were set at the beginning of the month. From August 1-3, Eisenhower Tunnel had the third highest three-day traffic count in history, with just more than 142,000 vehicles passing through.

Other parts of the local economy have more mixed results.Whats been happening with us is whats been happening with everyone else. Business has been down a little bit, said Glenn Morse, owner of Gore Range Outfitters. I dont want to make it sound worse than it really is, because were not too far off from last year, he said. Morse said it seems like business is starting to pick back up again.I think its just the fact that May and June were slow. It was when people were in the most panicked stage about the economy and everything, he said. July has been good, and August is looking good so far.Another key indicator of local economic health is the amount of recording revenue received by the county. All real estate transfers and refinancing are recorded for Eagle County, and the county collects a percentage of the total. And, according to County Clerk Teak Simonton, recording revenues are down about 15 percent. Shes quick to add that this isnt necessarily because of a slow economy. Part of it could be because of interest rates. Part of it could be foreclosures. It could be that people are more conservative about their purchasing decisions, or are putting it off until later in the year, Simonton said. But weve definitely seen a drop-off in recording fees.The investment waters get even murkier after talking with financial planners. Joe Peplinski, a certified financial planner with ING financial partners in Avon, said upheaval in the stock market over the last year combined with a slight economic downturn have made people more cautious.Theyve adopted more of a wait-and-see attitude, he said. But this compares to the late 90s, when business was even tougher to come by. In the late 90s and early 2000s, people thought they had the stock market figured out. The market was fun and games because everyone was doing so well, he said. Now people are more willing to seek outside advice, and are more about keeping balanced and diversified, and searching for places to go when they want to be conservative.

Elsewhere, minor ripples in the national economy have a larger effect.John Coyne, franchisee of Dominos Pizza, said sales have been down, but not crazy down, adding the Vail store hasnt been hit nearly as hard as the stores in Avon and Eagle. The problem is that you have to double what you pay your drivers for gasoline, he said. Also, you have to take into account that the ovens you have on for 13 hours a day are running on natural gas. He said the company has been forced to institute delivery fees nationwide for the first time to offset the additional pay for drivers and gas. But aside from the pizza delivery chains, there are other ominous signs that more people are struggling than may be immediately visible. Demand at mental health clinics has risen dramatically. Robert Chaifetz, CEO of a Chicago-based company that specializes in employee-assistance mental health programs, told USA Today in late July that requests for therapists has increased by 15 to 20 percent in the past three months, primarily driven by concerns about the financial situation.Local mental health clinics normally have an ebb and flow with the ski season, but this year they havent seen a slowdown period, according to Krista McClinton, director of Colorado West Mental Health Center. Since February, weve had more mental health emergencies and higher incidences of people coming in who cant afford treatment, she said. Im not sure if its all related to the economy, but it could be. Finances do tend to be one of their stressors, typically with depression. Adding that huge financial stressor on top of that will actually get them to come in for help.A final indicator of the economic health of Eagle County comes from the Salvation Army. Director Tsu Wolin-Brown said the center has seen an increase in cases each year since 2004, adding, Weve definitely had a lot more people this year, and most of the people we serve are the working poor.She then spoke of nearly a dozen different cases: a Leadville family who needed help for rent, a single mother with four children facing the prospect of having her electricity shut off, another woman who lost her job and consequently had to leave her apartment within 48 hours, a man who needed a bus ride to Grand Junction, and a woman who had five surgeries and needed help paying the bills. She continued for nearly two minutes, before adding the kicker: Those are the requests Ive had just today.Wolin-Brown said last year there were a total of 249 visits to the Salvation Army food pantry, and through April of this year, there were already more than 200. We continue to have more people coming in and asking for help, whether its something from the food pantry, help paying the rent or utilities, or gas vouchers, she said.Because of increased demand, the centers food pantry was nearly barren.We had no tuna, no peanut butter, and maybe one or two boxes of cereal left, Wolin-Brown said. We put out a plea to local churches to help replenish the pantry, and they came through big-time.And it is through generosity that those clinging on in Eagle County may find salvation in tough economic times. Thats really the great thing about this community, Wolin-Brown said. When people hear about a specific need, they rise to the occasion and come through. Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com


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