Virginia City tourism bouncing back

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Retailers in Virginia City hope the start of summer brings about an increase in business, which for many has plummeted in recent years.

Many of the small gift and antiques shops in Virginia City live and die on tourism generated by popular Virginia City events such as the Mountain Oyster Festival and International Camel Races.

But visitors to the famed Storey County town have tightened their spending over the past few years, many store owners say. As a result, owners worked longer hours and laid off employees to reduce their overhead.

But some feel optimistic that tourism is picking up in Virginia City. Pascal Baboulin, owner of Pioneer Emporium, which sells custom-made hats as well as jewelry, clothing and souvenirs, recently hired two employees after working the business as sole proprietor the past two years. Business at Pioneer Emporium has declined 15 to 20 percent each year since 2008.

"For the last three years it has slowed down, but my feeling is that this year it is picking up," Baboulin says. "Things are going to get better - I feel that we touched the bottom."

Baboulin's optimism springs from increased crowds wandering along C Street. Although most people aren't making big purchases, he says, more bodies in town still leads to more sales.

Patrick Gilmore, who has worked in visitors' services for the Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority the past 12 years, says that Virginia City is an event-driven town that relies heavily on its own slate of special events and spillover from large special events in the Truckee Meadows, such as Street Vibrations.

Wintertime - especially this year's severe and extended winter - throttles tourism, he says. Warmer weather brings more people up Geiger Grade, and although more tourists have begun enjoying the sights and flavor of the historic mining town, people still are hesitant to part with their money, Gilmore says.

"Everybody loves the events up here, and we can get them here, but we can't make them spend. The people are here, but they are choosing to spend their money on activities like train rides or mine tours."

Judy Cohen, who owns two retail businesses in Virginia City, says customers who are willing to spend on soft goods often want to bargain. Cohen came to Virginia City in 2002 when she purchased the Silver Stope, and two years later she purchased the Grand Emporium. The stores specialize in fine jewelry and Native American jewelry, clothing and motorcycle leather and accessories.

During the past three years, Cohen says, sales revenues have steadily slid downward.

"Visitors don't want to spend money, and everybody wants things discounted to nothing - it is almost like a flea market," she says.

Stores that sell homemade candy and sweets and the town's bars and eateries seem to be faring slightly better than shops offering clothing, clocks, jewelry and assorted bric-a-brac.

Loren and Sue Pursel re-opened the famed Red Dog Saloon in April of 2009. Last year's sales figures were up 20 percent over the opening year, and 2011 revenue at the saloon is up 5 percent over the prior year, Loren Pursel says. The saloon boasts live music, and the owners cut back on advertising expenses and payments to book big-name bands such as Jefferson Starship and Big Brother and the Holding Company, which cut its teeth at the Red Dog Saloon in the mid 1960s.

"We are seeing some of that payoff this year," Pursel says. "I think we will see a lot of profit this summer off shows that we didn't see last year due to those expenses.

"We have done fairly well for our type of business," he adds.

Being located in the heart of the C street business district makes a big difference as well. Ethel Eaton, owner of the Peach House, an antiques and collectibles shop, says her business, located on the north edge of town, doesn't get as much walk-in traffic as shops in the heart of Virginia City's main drag. Customers that do trickle in aren't willing to spend much money, she adds.

"Right now people are using their money for necessities," Eaton says.

Declining revenues have changed the way many store owners stock their shelves. Baboulin at the Pioneer Emporium has trimmed his inventory due to weakened demand, and Cohen says she normally purchases several hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise annually just for the Silver Stope, but that figure now is about $5,000.

Less-expensive items sell much better than more costly goods, she says. "It is tough to make a living up here," Cohen says. "The owners have to work the businesses, and the payback is not worth the time if you are from different field or lifestyle."

Cohen says the more well-established businesses on C Street have the resources to better able to withstand losses. For her part, she says, she's too stubborn and tenacious to lose her investment.

"You just have to keep fighting it out," Cohen says. "You just keep going - there is no choice."


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