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Laundromats hung out to dry

BRIAN DUGGAN
bduggan@nevadaappeal.com
Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal
NEVADA APPEAL | NEVADA APPEAL

From his Carson City laundromat, Paul Gould said he can remember the days when he would have customers from 7 a.m. until he closed at night. Nowadays, he said he’s lucky to see someone drag a load of dirty cloths into his store by the afternoon.

“There’s just nobody,” said Gould, owner of Economy Wash N Dry at 207 Hot Springs Rd. “It’s nothing like it used to be. I don’t have to worry about dryers being overloaded anymore. It’s a rare day if there’s a worry about there being not enough dryers.”

For years, many in the laundromat business considered their industry to be recession proof – people, after all, need to wash their clothes.

But today that characterization is being tested amid high apartment vacancy and unemployment rates nationwide and locally, especially as renters, the industry’s core customer, leave some parts of the country for others in search of work.

Brian Wallace, president and CEO of the Coin Laundry Association, said the laundromat business, an industry that boasts $5 billion in annual earnings from about 30,000 retailers, is performing better in some areas than others, especially in larger cities with long-standing renter populations.

And while Wallace says “recession proof” is too strong a term to describe the laundromat industry, “I think we’re holding up better than most.”

Still, “the exceptions I’m hearing about are those areas of declining immigration population and (rising) unemployment numbers,” he said.

Leonard Ramos, the first vice president and an agent for CB Richard Ellis in Reno, said that describes the Northern Nevada market, with unemployment above 13 percent as the construction industry continues to chill.

“A sizable portion of construction workers are Hispanic, and that’s your core renter,” Ramos said.

But there’s “a light at the end of the tunnel” for apartment vacancy rates, according to a third-quarter multi-housing market report from CB Richard Ellis that used data from Johnson-Perkins and Associates.

Rental vacancy rates for apartments with 80 or more units in Reno and Sparks declined from 10.93 percent in July to 9.08 percent in August while rental rates increased from $844 to $857. It was the second report that showed signs of improvement for apartment rentals in Washoe County.

“We’re probably beginning to approach the start of an improving trend,” Ramos said. “Probably by March of 2010 we might see the bottom and work toward … vacancy at 5 percent.”

While those figures do not reflect data from Carson City, Ramos said the state capital likely mirrors the trends in the neighboring county. And those improvements could have an effect on laundromats in Carson City.

Laundromat owner Denis McDuffee echoed similar problems as Gould, with business down about 30 percent from a year ago as a result of what he says is a smaller immigrant and renter population. Other laundromat owners in Carson City who did not want to be quoted for this article voiced similar trends in their business.

“That’s because, I think, the Hispanic population has decreased so much,” McDuffee said. “When construction was booming here we had a larger population that was using our laundromats … things were going gangbusters and then all of a sudden things stopped.”

McDuffee said he purchased his first laundromat in 2002, in Gardnerville. He eventually purchased two more in Carson City, including Bubbles at 933 Woodside Dr.

As a way to attract new customers, McDuffee said he’s been offering incentives such as more time per dryer load and free soap to give people “more bang for their buck.”

Daniel Portillo, 30, was at Economy Wash N Dry with his wife and daughter during a weekday afternoon as they waited to finish a load of laundry. Despite the tough economic times, Portillo, a landscaper, said clothes need to be washed.

“We’ve come every week, once a week for three or four years,” Portillo said. “We have to use the laundromat anyway, with good economy or not.”