CHELAN — Lake Chelan’s reputation as a getaway destination has served it well.
“We had the benefit of second-home owners moving over in March of last year. They haven’t left,” said Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Steele. “Their kids are schooling remotely and they’re working remotely and spending money locally. That’s been a great thing for our retail sector. It’s helped the restaurants, though they are the hardest hit. Most of them were able to make it.”
Some businesses closed, he said.
“But for most of those businesses, it was the last straw, not something totally related to COVID-19 or the pandemic,” he said. “They were on the edge and the pandemic pushed them over. We’ve actually had some brand new businesses open, which I thought was courageous. And they’re still around.”
The area also attracted plenty of shorter-term visitors last year.
“We’ve had a lot of folks here enjoying the outdoors,” he said. “We’re a three-hour drive from the Seattle market, so people felt safe coming here.”
As the economy reopens, that’s likely to continue.
“We’re anticipating the busiest summer season ever,” he said. “We will see numbers like we’ve never seen before. We’re seeing people who are lifelong Washingtonians who had never before been to Lake Chelan. It’s heartening. Looking forward, people are trying to prepare for that, with event planning and other things. We’re going to see big numbers through the fall.”
The ability to work remotely creates more travel flexibility, allowing people to stay in destinations like Lake Chelan for longer periods of time, he said.
The trend bodes well for the area even if pandemic conditions worsen, he said.
“Chelan will still be a destination,” he said. “We weathered it pretty well. We figured out ways to keep people outside and stay safe. People are anxious and ready to get out and do things.”
The region’s success has compounded pre-existing challenges with finding workers and an increase in housing prices, which leads to more difficulty finding workers.
Some businesses are offering hiring bonuses and paying higher wages. For small employers, that’s not easy to come up with, he said. Others are looking at ways to provide housing for summer workers.