All across Ashland, businesses that rely on tourism are dealing with mixed signals and uncertainty about whether the faltering economy and high gas prices will have a local impact.




Ticket sales at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are a main indicator of how well the tourist season will go.




"Last year was a blockbuster year," said Mallory Pierce, OSF director of marketing and communications. "So far, we're keeping pace with that. That's good. Looking ahead is more worrisome."




She said theater-goers are not buying tickets in advance, leaving OSF unable to predict how many people will come this season. When they do arrive, each visitor is buying an average of 3.1 tickets &

a number that has held remarkably constant over the years.




Pierce said that OSF strives for diversity in its play offerings, even when that means presenting some of William Shakespeare's less popular plays. With the exception perhaps of Coriolanus, the Shakespeare picks are strong draws for the 2008 season, she said.




Last year, OSF saw lower attendance for "Rabbit Hole," David Lindsay-Abaire's play about a couple struggling to cope with their four-year-old son's death. But this year, audiences filled the New Theatre for Julie Marie Myatt's "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter." The emotional play, which closed June 20, follows a female Marine and mother who has trouble readjusting to life back in the United States after a tour in Iraq.




Pierce said tourists &

especially senior citizens on fixed incomes &

have also responded warmly to OSF's $20 ticket pricing for all C seats, a reduction made under new Artistic Director Bill Rauch. Staff working in the box office and on the phones have heard from grateful visitors who have been able to come to Ashland by finding lower-priced lodging and meals and buying the C Section tickets.




Signals mixed for season's start




The Ashland Independent Film Festival had record-breaking attendance for its seventh annual festival in early April, selling 16,000 tickets to 7,000 attendees who bought up 90 percent of the available tickets. But the festival wrapped up well before the gas price spike that started Memorial Day weekend.




"The indicators were that gas prices going up was on the horizon, but it hadn't happened yet," said Tom Olbrich, executive director for the film festival. "We're looking to next year for what the impact will be."




Organizers are hopeful that if some attendees from more-distant locations like Seattle can't come next year, the festival will be able to draw visitors from places like Eugene, he said.




The city of Ashland is seeing lower receipts from the city's hotel tax and restaurant meals tax.




For the quarter that ended in April, hotel tax revenue was down about 2.7 percent. Part of that is probably due to the economic downturn, but also because the Windmill Inn reduced its number of rooms, said Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg.




Revenues from the city's meal tax are down 1.3 percent. In normal years, the revenues would increase 2 to — percent, he said.




Some lodging facilities are bucking the trend.




"We are fortunate. We have not seen a downturn," said Ashland Springs Hotel General Manager Don Anway. "This spring was the strongest we've ever had and summer is booking up. We continue to try to diversify our revenues. We have packages that promote what Ashland and the surrounding valley have to offer."




The hotel and its restaurant Lark's teamed with the RoxyAnn Winery in Medford and its on-site farm to offer a culinary adventure package. Other packages combine hotel stays with treatments at Waterstone Spa or dinner at Lark's with OSF tickets, he said.




With Ashland situated between Portland and San Francisco, Anway is hopeful tourists will still come despite high gas prices.




"We're within a six-hour drive range," he said. "People tend to continue to travel. Fortunately, we're conveniently located off I-5. People's vacation might not be as long. They may cut a day or not eat out as much, but they still come."




One bed and breakfast inn owner, who asked not to be named, said occupancy and gross revenue were up for him this spring. But he said he is paying more for everything from property taxes to toilet paper to pastry flour &

which has nearly tripled in price this year.




Since most bed and breakfast inns set and advertise their rates a year in advance, he can't raise rates to recover the extra costs.




"There will be a squeeze on the bottom line even if the number of guests stays the same or increases a bit," he said.




At the Chateaulin Restaurant, co-owner Jason Doss said this spring was slower than in 2007, but business began picking up with the opening of OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Stage in June.




"I think we're still going to do well. As well as in the past couple of years? Probably not," he predicted.




He said businesses have to find ways to make themselves stand out.




"Because of our wine list, people are still finding wine they won't find anywhere else. It intrigues them. As a business owner, you have to find the unique items that draw people in and keep them coming back," Doss said.




Economy dampens art sales




One business owner in the fine art field, who asked to remain anonymous, said his sales this year are down 35 percent. He is cutting back by washing his own windows and not ordering flowers for First Friday Art Walks &

moves that affect a local florist and a window-cleaning service.




Cathy DeForest, owner of Gallery DeForest, said 415 people came through her gallery for the First Friday Art Walk in June, but she made no sales that evening or even the next day.




"People are worried about gas and food," she said. "Where does art go? It's not a high priority."




Tourists who are still spending on accommodations, meals and theater tickets when they come to Ashland appear to be trimming costs by not buying art, DeForest said.




The real estate market downturn also has an impact because people are not redoing their homes or buying furnishing for new houses, she said.




With her calendar of art shows set for the year, she said she can't change exhibits and offer, for example, lower-priced art like small paintings. DeForest's last painter did lower her prices, however.




DeForest said she has a loyal local clientele, and she hopes they will remember to shop in Ashland when they are looking for gifts.




Staff reporter can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .