Customers are returning to Laramie businesses little by little after taking multiple hits in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And for some, business never waned and is better than ever.
Overall, 2020 was a banner year for Second Story Books, and the trend continued though 2021 with business picking up over the holiday season at a comparable rate to previous years, said owner Karen Voigt.
Voigt attributes the success to more people spending time at home and looking opportunities to get away from their televisions and device screens, in addition to the community overall seeming more focused on shopping locally.
One possible indicator of economic viability for the city is money collected as part of the 1% Specific Purpose Tax, which was renewed in 2018. The 1% rate is added to sales tax collected in Albany County.
Specific Purpose Tax collection rates are down 11% so far from fiscal year 2021, which ran from July 2020 through June 2021. But the decrease doesn’t reflect the state of the local economy, according to the city.
In 2021, the Laramie took in a large amount of revenue from one-time tax collections in the wind and energy development sector, said Jennifer Wade, spokesperson for the city's Accounting and Finance Department.
The online and retail sectors in Laramie haven't been hurt by the pandemic and generate about 50% of the city's Specific Purpose Tax revenue, Wade said.
Compared to fiscal year 2020, Specific Purpose Tax collections have increased by 19%, with food and accommodation services making a comeback.
This is true at Coal Creek TAP, where business has been brisk since last April, an atypical sales model even for a year not in a pandemic, said manager Cullen Williams.
“I feel like we have a really great community backing up local business,” Williams said. “I’d like to thank Laramie for being so great … (and) willing to help us out.”
During pandemic shutdowns, loyal customers kept the bar afloat, Williams said. They switched from buying beer at the bar to buying to-go cups, and returned in-person once public health measures eased up and allowed bars to reopen.
At Atmosphere Mountainworks, there was a line at the register for what felt like months on end, said employee Emily Gipson.
“We were barely hanging on by our fingernails,” she said about working through a busy holiday season.
Even when things were quiet in the store, online orders kept coming in, Gipson said.
Closures at the beginning of the pandemic were hard for Ruby’s Vintage Home Goods, but now business has picked up again, said owner Tad Quick.
The busiest time for the shop is during the University of Wyoming football season, when friends and families of students are in town walking the streets before games.
As soon as the stores and the university were open again, customers came back, Quick said. They also were grateful that everyone managing the shop was willing to wear masks and take other safety precautions.
“You can’t stop people from spending money,” Quick said.
All of the money the city makes from the Specific Purpose Tax will be spend on voter-approved initiatives, which include improvements to roads, recreational facilities, parks and groundwater protection.
“The community can already see their tax dollars at work as city staff work hard to complete capital projects funded by this tax,” Wade said. “Several street projects have been completed, including reconstruction projects on sections of 9th Street, Grafton Street, 4th Street, Riverside Drive and the 30th Street and Reynolds Street intersection.”
Other completed and ongoing projects made possible by the tax include street and storm drainage projects, upgrades to the Laramie Recreation Center, solar installations, playground and park upgrades, and improvements to city facilities like the Laramie Police Department locker room.
Playground replacements at Kiowa and Washington parks are scheduled to happen in the spring, Wade said.
Albany County’s portion of the tax money amounts to nearly $12 million over 10-12 years. If the city makes more than expected from the Specific Purpose Tax, it will shorten the duration of the tax rather than increase its overall collection.
The city will review budget plans for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 during budget work sessions in April and May.