Palisade buffets recession

PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON—Inari’s Bistro in downtown Palisade.Art to go with Mike Wiggins’s story.Sent as PALISADE TAX 11-13.

Mickie Harshman felt the brunt of the recession about this time last year when she was laid off from her job as the assistant manager for 13 Photography in downtown Grand Junction.

The now-shuttered studio’s prime location in one of the Grand Valley’s top, long-standing tourist destinations couldn’t prevent it from falling victim to a downturn that forced many people to slash their discretionary spending.

So when Harshman made the move from Grand Junction’s Main Street to the Blue Pig Gallery and the street that runs through the heart of downtown Palisade, she was surprised by what she saw: Scores of tourists and valley residents booking rooms and special events tickets, browsing and shopping at its galleries and wineries and drinking and dining at its watering holes and restaurants.

“You wouldn’t know there’s a recession,” said Harshman, the Blue Pig’s gallery director.

While Mesa County, Grand Junction and Fruita are slogging through double-digit declines in sales-tax revenue this year, joining untold numbers of other communities across the state and nation, Palisade is pulling off the seemingly improbable: Its businesses, as a whole, are making more money from retail sales than they did last year.

Year-to-date through August, the most recent month for which numbers were available, the town had pulled in $138,826 in revenue from its 2 percent sales tax. That’s a 14 percent jump compared to the same time last year, according to Town Administrator Tim Sarmo.

Sarmo cautioned against reading too much into the gain, noting the town is drawing dollars from a small business community and that sales-tax receipts comprise a small fraction of the town’s $4.7 million general fund. He said the town is dealing with a decline in overall revenue and, as a result, hasn’t filled three positions it planned to add this year.

Still, he and others say the fact that new businesses are opening and sales are up is noteworthy in the midst of what’s widely considered the worst local economy in 25 years.

Palisade town officials, business advocates and business owners and employees attribute the uptick to an array of factors, including the opening of the Wine Country Inn and several new restaurants in the past couple of years, aggressive marketing by the town and the Palisade Chamber of Commerce and the creation of a pedestrian plaza.

“It’s the payoff, I think, for a number of years of trying to promote business development,” Sarmo said.

The town of roughly 2,700 residents long ago built its image through peaches and grapes. But it’s just been in the past few years that town officials and entrepreneurs aggressively sought to combine agriculture and tourism while also introducing new sources of revenue to Palisade.

“There are certain things about Palisade that make it a good place, and we want to capitalize on that,” Sarmo said. “We don’t want to change the past. We want to build on it. (Agriculture) has always been a significant part of what makes Palisade function.”

The town and the chamber work hand-in-hand to promote Palisade, with the chamber targeting the valley and the town focusing on communities outside the area.

All of Whole Foods Market’s stores on the Front Range sell Palisade peaches and feature displays promoting Palisade. And all 143 City Market and King Soopers stores in Colorado carry brochures and posters touting the Palisade Peach Festival.

Town voters boosted marketing efforts last year when they approved a lodging tax specifically to pay for tourism promotion. It’s expected to generate $30,000 to $40,000 annually. Meanwhile, Chamber Executive Director Leif Johnson said the chamber spends about $25,000 on general and special event marketing. Four years ago, when he first arrived, the chamber spent no money on marketing.

Long renowned for its peach festival and Colorado Mountain Winefest, the town has drawn crowds to other special events, including a Sunday farmers’ market and bicycle, bluegrass and honeybee festivals. And the list will grow significantly next year, when the number of events on the chamber’s calendar will jump from 11 this year to 29 in 2010.

Festival-goers are finding more businesses to patronize. Johnson said four new businesses have opened since July, and a fifth should open in December. The Palisade Cafe is under new ownership, who tacked “Grill” to the name, remodeled the restaurant and added a dinner menu.

Town and chamber officials also point to this past spring’s opening of a $600,000 pedestrian plaza at the corner of Third and Main streets as a magnet for artists and vendors.

“Having an activity that centers around the plaza does bring (shoppers) into town and then, from there, into our businesses,” Harshman said.

Rory Donovan, co-founder of Peach Street Distillers, said his business has recovered this year after taking a sales hit last year. He and Harshman attribute local businesses’ success to Johnson’s ambition and businesses cross-promoting one another.

“Nobody can take credit for it all, but none of us could be here without each other, you know?” Donovan said.

Johnson said he doesn’t see a reason for things to slow down.

“I think we’ve got nowhere to go but up,” he said. “We may eventually encounter (a downturn) at some point. But Palisade is just kind of coming on.”


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