Weekend events help economy

Wintertime events that bring high numbers of tourists to Homer equal revenue spikes in local businesses for more than just a weekend. 

Events attracting one-time visitors provide the opportunity to showcase the town’s recreational sporting events and activities such as fishing and skiing, which often inspires people to return for more. 

However, Homer’s small town charm may not be able to take all the credit for recent year’s revenue spikes, as warm temperatures also push more people to go out and about during winter months.

Homer filled up with visitors last weekend due to the Homer Cycling Club’s Big Fat Bike Festival, the folkstyle, girls and freestyle tournament hosted by the Popeye Wrestling Club at Homer High School, the Kachemak Nordic Ski Marathon and the Mite hockey tournament at the Kevin Bell Arena. 

About 50 players came from out of town with their families for the Mite hockey tournament. The Popeye Wrestling tournament registered 382 non-Homer wrestlers, many of whom brought their families to town with them. The Homer Cycling Club had at least 55 out-of-town participants registered for their festival, while the ski marathon registered 34 skiers from all over the Alaska road system, according to event organizers. 

In total, well over 500 people traveled to Homer for these events where they purchased food, hotel stays, or other goods and services.

Hotels reported being at full occupancy to the Homer Chamber of Commerce and many are booked up through March 20, said Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center Executive Director Karen Zak. Restaurants, including AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse & Tavern and Fat Olives, also reported big weekend numbers.

Saturday’s Winter King Salmon Tournament and the Pee Wee Tier III Alaska State Hockey Tournament are expected to bring in a conservatively estimated $672,000 of revenue to Homer businesses over the weekend, according to Zak. The revenue estimate includes money spent on lodging, restaurants and retail and not does factor in the 7.5 percent sales tax, 4.5 percent of which goes to the city of Homer. 

Zak came up with that number by looking at the average cost of lodging, the number of nights stayed and the number of people staying. She also added in the average cost of restaurant meals per person per day as well as purchases for things like souvenirs or sports gear. Some items will vary depending on the activity and the group, Zak wrote in an email. She said she was conservative in her estimates.

Outside of the chamber’s calculations, none of Alaska’s economic research or tourism marketing groups have analyzed the effect of in-state winter tourism by Alaskans visiting other Alaska communities. Shannon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said the council did a study in 2006 that showed 45 percent of summer visitors to the Kenai Peninsula were Alaskans.

The Homer chamber registered 798 anglers from the Lower 48 and outside the Kenai Peninsula area for the 2015 Winter King tournament, a one-day event. Zak estimates that the 2015 tournament brought in at least $297,000 from the registered non-Kenai Peninsula participants. Additional guests or family members each participant might have brought with them were not counted in the estimate. However, the number of visiting anglers at this year’s tournament may exceed last year’s, potentially increasing the amount of money spent at Homer businesses.

“Based on pre-registration for this year’s tournament taking place on Saturday, March 19, the 2015 participant record may be broken again,” Zak said.

Winter king fishermen won’t bring much of a boost to the Homer Harbor coffers because no fee is charged in the winter for loading and launching boats at the harbor. Tournament participants get a one-night coupon to moor boats, but some mariners stay more than one night for an additional fee. The city also collects camping fees at campsites open to winter camping. On Wednesday, the city opened Mariner Park to camping in addition to the winter camping sites at the Pier One Theatre campground by the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon.

The Homer Hockey Association brings in more than 1,200 participants, not including family or friends who attend the events with them, to Kevin Bell Arena for games and tournaments each winter season, according to Homer Hockey Association and Kevin Bell Arena Vice President Jan Rumble. The Pee Wee Tier III Alaska State Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 18-21 at Kevin Bell Arena, is the second of the three consecutive weekend hockey tournaments held in Homer. The Pee Wee tournament consists of teams of 10- and 11-year-old hockey players coming from Juneau, the Mat-Su Borough, Kenai, Tok, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Eagle River. With players and their families, coaches, referees and volunteers coming into town, the tournament is expected to bring in about 500 people, said event organizer Derotha Ferraro. The chamber estimates that those visiting Homer for the tournament will spend at least $375,000 over those four days. 

Beyond the day of the event, it is difficult to track the true impact of these tournaments on the local businesses and city. Events in Homer also act as an advertisement for repeat visitors, which then put more money into the economy.

“Most communities measure the economic impact of participants’ spending money in the community at local businesses and sales tax dollars in business segments such as lodging, restaurants and bars, guided water and retail,” Zak said. “Less recognized is the long-term global attention that events bring to the community through social media marketing and word-of-mouth. Showcasing our community in the winter season represents a huge economic boost area wide and probable repeat visitors.

“The benefits will be felt long after the events end.”

The Winter King tournament, which is on its 23rd year, is a prime example of creating tourism outside of the day of the event, said Scott Ulmer, owner of Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware. Ulmer brought the idea for the tournament to the chamber two decades ago to highlight Homer’s fisheries in the traditionally less-busy winter season, he said. 

“This event has put Homer on the map for being a fishing destination year-round,” Ulmer said. “The goal I set forth when I came to the chamber [with the idea] was to promote the fishing and bring more business during the shoulder seasons. And it has done that — people coming and eating in restaurants, staying in hotels, going on charters — and it’s all about that one-day event in March where people recognize there’s fishing here on a daily basis year-round.”

The tournament draws attention to the feeder kings and other fish that can be caught in Homer’s waters, attracting fishermen back for more. At his business, Ulmer can see the results of increased winter fishing firsthand. Anglers come into Ulmer’s to purchase fishing equipment and in the last six years Ulmer has seen steady growth in year-round fishing. However, the store’s sales have been increasing by at least 100 percent from year to year within the past three years, Ulmer said.

“Last year, for example, we were up 132 percent over the March before and up 178 percent in February over the February before. Without question the biggest growth in my business was the fishing department for 2015,” Ulmer said. “I don’t expect it to slow down or stop. I’m expecting May and April to be just as strong. … We have anglers fishing now that used to put their rods away at the end of August.”

The recent mild winters allow people to spend more time outside, Ulmer said. Though many in town lament the lack of snow and cold temperatures, the warmer weather does appear to have its economic perks. Fat Olives owner Steve Nolan also noted the weather as one of the reasons for his restaurant’s busy March 12 weekend.

“Business is up because people are moving around more. We had a lot of people from Soldotna who just came down. These events bring up the bottom line and make us busier, but a lot of things go hand-in-hand — the weather, everything there is in town like the hockey or an event at the school,” Nolan said. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Anna Frost can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com. Michael Armstrong also contributed to this article. He can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.