Fewer Snowbirds Would Hurt Arizona's Economy
LAUREN GILGER: With fall upon us here in the Valley and temperatures finally sticking in the double-digits, this time of year, we'd expect to start seeing an influx of winter visitors from Canada, the upper Midwest and other places where winter actually means freezing conditions. But with the coronavirus pandemic still affecting so many aspects of life, there may be fewer snowbirds flocking to the Valley this year, and that could have a big impact on those communities that rely on them. For more on this, our co-host Mark Brodie spoke with Sally Harrison, president and CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, and asked how important snowbirds are to Mesa and its economy.
SALLY HARRISON: You know, it's extremely important. We depend on that activity from that, that age group and not only just going to restaurants and, you know, things like that, but just in our, some of our parks and our, you know, over-55 communities. It's significant. And when they're not here, we certainly, you know, we certainly feel it as a business community.
MARK BRODIE: What is the expectation for how many people will come this year relative to other years?
HARRISON: Yeah, that's, that's kind of the big question, right? I know we have an employee who lives in a senior community, and that's kind of the talk right now is, you know, who's coming back. I do know from talking with our friends at Gateway Airport that they have activity from Canadians, so that is very promising. That's exciting news to us because that to me says a lot about what may happen. It's looking like those who can get back will. And I think it will kind of depend on what happens this fall with COVID and if we have another spike.
BRODIE: Are there concerns either within the business community in Mesa or just sort of broadly in the city about having people coming from all sorts of different places and congregating in one city and maybe in particular communities and, you know, potentially bringing with them COVID-19 or whatever other viruses or germs they might have with them?
HARRISON: You know, I've heard some talk about that, but I think it's almost the reverse. I think a lot of folks think it's worse here than it is in other areas.
BRODIE: Interesting. That seems like maybe it would turn people away from coming.
HARRISON: Well, and that's the fear, right? I do know that from our friends at Gateway Airport and the response that they've had to opening up flights from Canada, that they have a lot of interest in people coming back. So there's kind of mixed messages to us in the business community as to what will happen.
BRODIE: For the people who are able to come back and do, in fact, come back to Mesa this winter, will they be able to do the things that they normally do? I mean, museums, parks, shops, that kind of thing?
HARRISON: Well, right now I think we've had quite a, quite a few restaurants and museums and, you know, other kind of the visitor-type attractions open. So that's good. And hopefully we get to stay open and, you know, we don't have another big spike that would close us back down because we did reopen a lot of those kind of attractions, obviously, with precautions in place.
BRODIE: So I want to go back to the spring when a lot of stuff started closing down in Arizona and across the country, which was, of course, you know, right in the middle of spring training, sort of the height of the the tourism season. Sorry to take you back there. But what, what did you see and what was the impact of, of people not being able to do the stuff that they normally would do in Mesa? And like, did you see people leaving very quickly, for example?
HARRISON: It was devastating, really. I'm a volunteer for the Hohokam, so, you know, we, we work with the spring training teams. So the Chicago Cubs and the Oakland A's here in Mesa. And I just remember working at the A's stadium. And right away there was this rush to increase, you know, the hand sanitizer and that kind of thing. And then within a few more days, it was, you know, all of us volunteers getting calls saying, "Don't come in tomorrow." You know, don't report to volunteer tomorrow because they're closing all the stadiums down. There's a loyal following, right? So, you know, you've got your fans for both teams. And literally it was like, well, if we can't go to games, we're cutting things short. We can't go into restaurants. We can't do whatever it was they had planned. And it was kind of this mass exit. It was, it was sad. You know, our hotels certainly felt it. And so, yeah, Mesa has — that's like our second Christmas, right, for us. And, and really, we took a big hit.
BRODIE: Well, so given what happened in the spring, does that make it more important that this year's season is as normal as possible?
HARRISON: Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, we want our spring training back. That's, you know, that's significant for Mesa. It's why we have so many visitors, you know, in the spring. Snowbirds come, obviously, but we have that influx of people that are coming in to attend spring training games. And I'll tell you from, you know, being a volunteer for this group for so long now, we have people that come year after year after year.
BRODIE: Well, and understanding that, you know, the season goes for a few months now, but does it make you nervous when you look at the numbers in Arizona and see the number of COVID-19 cases going up in the positivity rates going up — and obviously it's not what it was in the middle of the summer when it was at its peak, but is it troubling to you that the numbers are moving in the direction they are and what that might mean for Mesa in the weeks and months to come?
HARRISON: Yeah, it's a little worrisome knowing that, you know, we are also in regular flu season, whatever regular is, right? But, yeah. Having talked to a lot of our businesses that really do rely on visitors, not just winter visitors, but, you know, our visitors from all over and year round, they've definitely felt the effects. We have, you know, some folks that their main clientele is those groups like the over-55 communities, you know, whether it's air conditioning or, you know, their restaurant located really close — whatever that might be. They've been hit really hard, you know, not just from the people who like me, who live here, but, you know, not having that additional group of folks with that kind of income that they spend money here.
BRODIE: All right, that is Sally Harrison, president and CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. Sally, thanks for your time. I appreciate it. Be well.
HARRISON: Oh, thank you so much.