The Cambrian

Hearst Castle attendance slides as highway closures take a toll on local businesses

Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Anybody who’s familiar with how the North Coast’s economy works knows it has taken a significant hit lately, due at least in part to the prolonged closure of Highway 1 at Mud Creek about 30 miles north of Cambria.

Because of a massive landslide there last May, Caltrans must relocate and rebuild that section of the scenic All-American Road, a project that’s expected to take until at least late summer.

And, although there was a mini-boom for some North Coast and county entrepreneurs during the Thomas Fire — as Santa Barbara and Ventura residents fled north — for many area businesses, the subsequent two-week mudslide-caused closure of Highway 101 in Montecito near Santa Barbara brought economic reality back with a vengeance.

The combination of closures “has been devastating,” said Claudia Alexander of the upscale Alexander-Denny Jewelry Studio that’s been in its upstairs Burton Drive location since 1990. “It will take months and months to make up the loss” from 2017 and January.

The Castle

To paraphrase an old cliché, “As Hearst Castle goes, so goes the income of many San Luis Obispo County businesses.”

Some longtime area entrepreneurs say that, when southbound tour takers can’t get to the Castle from the north via Highway 1 and northbound motorists can’t continue their northbound trip to Monterey, some visitors may opt to delay their visits to the area entirely.

According to Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes Hearst Castle, attendance there has been declining.

Figures he provided Jan. 18 showed a 15.5 percent drop in the number of tours taken in 2017, compared with the previous year.

Falat said that in 2015, 775,958 tours were taken. The 2016 count was 744,409 (or 31,549 fewer than the year before, a 4.6 percent drop), and the tour count for 2017 was 628,858 (down 115,551, or 15.5 percent).

Attendance at the Castle’s twilight and nighttime holiday tours was also down, he said. In mid-December, he hypothesized that wider promotion of the Christmas Market at the Cambria Pines Lodge, with its elaborate light show, could have drawn some visitors who might otherwise have taken the Castle tours that focus on holiday-decorated areas of the estate.

Falat compared attendance for those tours during the week prior and after Christmas, with 36,234 in 2017 and 44,793 in 2016. The Holiday Twilight tour during the same time period saw a drop, too, from 9,648 in 2016 to 8,810 in 2017.

Businesses

Aaron Linn of Linn’s, the business representative for the North Coast Advisory Council, said his family’s 28-year-old business did well in 2017, but January was “incredibly, atrociously slow.”

He said that with the pine forest, the hills and the sea, Cambria has become a destination in its own right, with the attraction enhanced by such events as the Scarecrow Festival and the Christmas Market.

However, some other long-established enterprises have been suffering, as many of them did in previous economic recessions and lengthy closures of Highway 1.

IMG_23844834_85532462130_4_1_ERCTUFC0_L357816730
The Cambria Christmas Market is a big December tourist draw for the North Coast town. Stephen H. Provost sprovost@thetribunenews.com

Most agree that Caltrans has done a good job this time keeping the public and business owners up to date on the project to rebuild the damaged highway section, but the message is still the same: The internationally acclaimed scenic byway is closed.

Fidel Figueroa said business at San Simeon Beach Bar & Grill was down 30 percent in 2017 compared with 2016, and at the adjacent San Simeon Lodge, it was down 20 percent.

This January was even worse, with lodge bookings down 25 percent, and restaurant sales down 35 percent, he said in a social-media interview.

“This has been one of the worst months so far,” Figueroa wrote Monday, Jan. 29. “I can’t wait for it to be over.”

Business also has been down across Highway 1 at the El Chorlito Restaurant, which has operated there since 1979.

“Tourism from the Castle is essentially our only ‘industry’” in this area, entrepreneur Evelyn Morales said in a social-media interview. She feels “it is wonderful that we have the elephant seals and tours of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, but … in my opinion, the most enticing thing worldwide next to the Castle is that we are (or were), the ‘Gateway to Big Sur’ and the adventure of the ride along Highway 1. That is a combo that can’t be beat.

“I think that people are postponing their plans to visit Hearst Castle until they can have the whole package … particularly people who have another destination to the north of us,” Morales said, adding that “they don’t realize that it really doesn’t take much longer to go around” to get to the North Coast.

Area business owners say that, as always, they are relying on support from local residents for survival.

Morales said some “Cambrians seem to think of San Simeon as way too far to go!” Some guests at a resort on the north end of Cambria told her, “We were really surprised that coming here for lunch was about the same as driving to a Cambria restaurant!”

Jim Ramey of Ragged Point Inn, the resort that’s closest to the road closure, said Tuesday, Jan. 30, that “we’re chugging along. We’re doing OK,” but “we’re certainly looking forward to the day the road reopens, and we’re starting to plan for it. The new year was an important milestone in a way. Instead of looking into the darkness, with the road closed, we’re starting to look ahead to the road reopening.”

Jeweler Alexander said, “Sure, it’s been really bad having the highway closed up to Big Sur, but we’re hanging in. We’re not going to let it win. We’ll stay strong. We’re a town, and we’ll hang together and do the best we can do. … We can rely on each other when we’re really in need. We’re not anonymous here. We’re kind of all in it together. It’ll take a lot to kill us.”

Looking for the silver lining, she said, “When things get this bad, this uncomfortable, people get creative. There are bumps in the road right now. But with pressure comes creativity, camaraderie and neighbors looking out for each other.”

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