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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMartha Browning and Peter Fetterman of LA make their way through in downtown Ashland Monday morning wearing face masks due the poor air quality.

Smoke dealt blow to outdoor-oriented businesses

A job with no time off but still no paycheck? That’s been the life lately of Bryant Helgeland, owner of Mountain Provisions on the Ashland Plaza. At first, it was surrounding construction that kept customers away for five months, but then, during the supposed peak retail months, the smoke rolled in.

“Basically, tourism ended July 15, with the lightning storms and it went on to the end of September,” says Helgeland. “We rely pretty heavily on tourism for a good portion of the year’s revenue and it just didn’t happen this year. And last summer, we had smoke most of the summer. It’s over a year now since I had a day off or a paycheck. I can’t make a living this way and this is the last year (if smoke returns) that I’ll be able to do it.”

Helgeland kept his employees but had to cut hours. Where many would throw up their hands and leave, Helgeland says, “Believe it or not, I feel confident. Part of it is that it’s a new business and when you’re trying to get it up and running, the first couple years are going to be challenging. I’m still turning a profit but I do it by running it real tight.”

Also having to adapt to the changing situation is the city-owned Daniel Meyer Pool.

“Our pool was greatly affected,” said city Recreation Superintendent Rachel Dials. “The facility (inside, for employees) has no air conditioning. We had to shorten work schedules. Two sessions of swim lessons were canceled, affecting 200 families, with revenue loss of $4,000. That’s quite a bit when you make the bulk of your money in the summer. The pool was closed 12 full days and 11 half-days.”

So, how do you adapt to that? They plan to make up the lost revenues during the other parts of the year. They will offer lessons in May and June. It may not be really warm yet, but they will heat the water more, she says. They just penned a memorandum of understanding with the Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club to give swim lessons during winter months, using city staff, most of whom are in high school and college and will have to jigger their schedules around.

Revenue for the city-owned Oak Knoll Golf Course was down $6,054 in July and $3,078 in August compared to last year. The city only has one worker inside at the desk and two outside maintenance workers, so, says Dials, “We had a lot of meetings on how to protect yourself if it’s really bad outside. We had no cutbacks or layoffs and, as for golfers, we let people make their own decisions.”

Amazingly, one business, the Ashland Fly Shop, found an upside in the smoke, because fish like cloudy weather, which keeps water temperatures lower, and fish are more active, said manager Marcus Mattioli.

“August and September are the two smokiest months and also the hottest, so smoke keeps temperatures down,” he notes. Guided fly fishing jaunts thrived but, he adds, “there was less foot traffic coming through the door.”

Ashland for 44 years has been the launching point for rafting with Noah’s River Adventures — lots of tourists walking by their booth on the Plaza on impulse say, “hey, let’s go for it” — but this summer has been like no other, says owner Bart Baldwin, with 40 to 50 percent of the business gone.

Business was great in sunny May, June and the first half of July, so, says Baldwin, you spend money on new gear, vehicles, you get employees and you take deposits on trips. They can be refunded on 48 hours notice and when the July 15 storm hit, cancellations and refunds started.

Baldwin has a loyal crew who grew up or went to college here and fell in love with our outdoors, he notes. He told them to go find other jobs, perhaps in construction for the duration of smoke, but they all stuck with him and he kept sending them out on the whitewater, often knowing the trip would only break even.

Noah Hague, the founder of the business, told him there have been smoky years in the ‘80s but they would come and go. Not this one.

“He never had this sustained smoke, every day, every week. It was cyclical back then. If the wind had just shifted (this summer), we could have been clear. If it was just a bit more westerly or northerly, but that northwest wind, I’ve never seen it sustained in one direction for that long. It was horrible.”

Tourists, when canceling, told Baldwin they’d be back, maybe, after August and, indeed, since blue skies returned in the last week of August, “We’ve had an incredible fall and will go into the first or second week of October, as usual. It’s been a real nice shot in the arm.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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