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Resort towns rely upon local flavor

Published Dec. 5, 2006

In the ski town of Breckenridge, Colo., the holiday rush is for the slopes, not the shops. Residents can buy a Christmas tree, upscale clothing, or trendy cookware but will be hard-pressed to find an iPod along Main Street. Residents in the quaint Victorian-style resort about 100 miles west of Denver like it that way.

"It's nice being in a place where there are no chains (stores)," said Elisabeth Gallup, 28, who opened Cookin' Cowgirl shop on Main Street about three years ago.

It's a familiar refrain in resort communities around the West, which love to cash in on visitors but don't want to surrender the small-towns. Big-box retailers have passed on many resort towns because of local opposition or because land is too scarce or expensive. Some towns have considered measures to keep them out, fearing they would detract from the character.

"I don't feel like we're really on the outskirts or super isolated," says store owner Trinidad Carreon of Whitefish, Mont., a resort town near Glacier National Park.

Resort retailers cater to tourists during the busy ski season, which starts around Thanksgiving for Colorado resorts and ends in late March - and during the summer, when visitors enjoy hiking, fishing, golfing and outdoor activities. The stores also serve year-round residents and, in a growing number of cases, are finding new customers among second-home owners.

"The thing that changes for us being in a resort is that the day after Christmas in the city you've peaked and it's all sort of going downhill," said John Balma, 57, who opened a clothing store in 1974.

Whitefish, a community of about 7,000 near the Big Mountain Ski Resort, is similar to Breckenridge in that stores are primarily individually owned. There are big-box retailers in nearby Kalispell. In Taos, N.M., a resort town of about 5,000, retail stores are again mostly locally owned.

"Big boxes are kind of the antithesis of what the community is all about here," said Brian Chew, a 50-year-old self-professed corporate refugee from Boston who owns Taos Mountain Electronics. "It doesn't fit with the local economy, the local environment or the look and feel of Taos."