Boulder tourism, retail probes reveal ‘strong but vulnerable’ economic environment

Minority of residents feel number of visitors detracts from quality of life, according to survey

Megan Brown, of Fort Worth, Texas, and her father Mark Brown, of Arlington, Texas, shop for a cookbook at Peppercorn on the Pearl Street Mall on Friday.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect statistic that was erroneously included in a presentation of data collected in a tourism survey. The correct statistic is that 69% of survey respondents agreed there are too few or the right number of festivals and events in the city. The story below has been corrected.

Boulderites who consider visitors to the city pesky inconveniences are in the minority.

That message was delivered this month by results of a survey commissioned by the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau, the public agency tasked with fostering the city’s economic vitality through a strong downtown experience.

The survey was completed by 711 Boulder residents and also included 234 employer and employee online submissions. It showed 80% of respondents agreed visitors benefit the local economy, while 16% said visitors disrupt their quality of life. Also, 69% of residents polled said there are too few or the right number of festivals and events in the city.

Additionally, 69% of downtown restaurants and 46% of retailers say their businesses would fail without tourist sales.

Bureau leaders are hoping the positive sentiment toward tourism will buffer the organization from further city council-directed budget cuts.

People walk along the Pearl Street Mall on Friday.

The organization’s budget for 2019 was cut by $126,000, the first budget cut  in the group’s history, according to Bureau spokesperson Kim Farin. A 0.15% food service tax and a 20% portion of the city’s 7.5% accommodations excise tax normally funds the Bureau, but council can cut into that revenue if it chooses, Farin said.

The survey was spurred by feelings expressed by community members that Boulder has reached or perhaps exceeded its carrying capacity for out-of-town visitors. Yet the results showed 86% of residents host friends or family more than once a year, and residents take their guests to or suggest they visit the city’s most popular attractions at high rates — 94% recommend hitting the Pearl Street Mall or downtown, 85% recommend Chautauqua open space and trails, 45% recommend the Mount Sanitas trails and 26% recommend the 29th Street mall.

“Historically, Convention and Visitors Bureaus around the country have been measuring their success based on ‘heads in beds’ and tourism funding,” Farin said.

But supporting the quality of life in Boulder was added to the local Bureau’s mission after its larger mission was tweaked after a workshop and self-assessment by the organization in 2017.

“We no longer see visitors as our primary customer; rather we see residents as our true customer and we work for the benefit and well-being of everyone in Boulder,” Farin said. “Essentially, it’s a balance between supporting tourism with the powerful means of supporting our community with business, employment and tax dollars. Because of this shift, we commissioned the survey to take a pulse on how we are doing.”

Not all of the results reflect strong resident satisfaction with Boulder’s ability to attract visitors. “Downtown is strong but vulnerable” was a key finding of the survey.

Nearly half — 47% — of residents are visiting downtown less often today than in years before, with 24% claiming the downtown experience is declining versus 8% who feel it is improving, according to the survey. South Boulder residents and residents 55 and older account for the sharpest drops in downtown trips, according to the survey results.

“It’s not unusual for residents that have been in a place 20 years or more to be far more negative on their perception of towns than people there five years or less,” said Sean Maher, CEO of RRC Associates, which performed the survey. Maher also writes a column for the Camera’s Business Plus section.

City Councilman Bob Yates in an essay this month analyzed the feelings expressed in the survey in light of a year-long study of the city’s retail environment presented to council in July.

That retail study showed Boulder had a “pull factor,” or the ratio between household spending power and annual retail sales, of 1.5, or 50% higher than a city its size should expect. The figure, based on Boulder’s total yearly retail sales of $2.96 billion versus its annual household spending potential of $1.94 billion, indicates how much the city enjoys the benefits of buying by non-residents, according to the study.

Boulder is outdoing surrounding municipalities in attracting more spending than its residents could support, according to the survey, which cited pull factors for Broomfield, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville and Superior.

“Boulder depends on visitors to fund our above-average municipal amenities and to support our above-average retail establishments,” Yates wrote, contending continuing to attract tourists and cutting bureaucratic red tape for business owners is essential for the city. “… Folks used to say that Boulder is 25 square miles surrounded by reality. We must now acknowledge that that we are 25 square miles surrounded by competition.”

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