By DL PERRIN
A major portion of the summer revenue for LaGrange County comes from tourism. According to a marketing survey for 2011, by Certec Inc., shopping, lodging, food and beverage sales accounted for four out of every five dollars spent in LaGrange County.
The town of Shipshewana is an excellent measure of the success or failure of the tourist season.
Rene Hostetler is the marketing director for the Trading Place of America conglomerate. The company’s operation includes the popular Shipshewana Flea Market, restaurants, auction house, camping, lodging and convention facilities.
“This past summer was somewhat schizophrenic, presenting us with highs and lows on a weekly and sometimes daily basis,” Hostetler said. “The prelude of the mild winter and early spring left us with the hope of a promising flea market season. The crowd levels built steadily throughout May propelling us into a busy and prosperous June.”
But the unusually warm temperatures in July impacted the visitor-based businesses according to Hostetler. “We couldn’t have predicted what was to come in July. As the heat index rose, our numbers declined. The July Fourth holiday, normally one of our best weeks, turned into one of our worst. Our air-conditioned facilities did well. The Farmstead Inn, The Antiques Gallery and the Auction Restaurant all saw an increase in sales and volume. The Flea Market was at capacity with 900 plus vendors through August. Most of them expressed optimism concerning their level of sales during the summer overall in spite of the unusual heat wave.”
Up and down
Alvin Miller owns the Davis Mercantile a retail building in the center of Shipshewana’s shopping district. “Like everyone else, Miller explained. “We’ve had our ups and downs this past summer, but it was a good season. We feel good about the future. All of our retail spaces are filled and the businesses say they are doing well. We Shipshewana businesses put our resources together through the SRMA to market this area to the visitor. Besides the stores and the flea market, we have the water park and the theater. The visitor has a choice. There is something for everyone.”
Running the Convention and Visitors Bureau visitor information office near downtown Shipshewana, Beth Thornberg has her eye on the visitor traffic. “Our visitor center has seen significant increases in phone calls and walk-ins this year. We have expanded our hours in order to better serve our visitors.”
Thornberg said she is aware of new businesses that are planning to open in Shipshewana. She said the visitor traffic has increased for the theater and entertainment venues now offered in Shipshewana.
The LaGrange County Chamber reports its membership has increased. Director Beth Sherman had a long list. “The RV industry is expanding in Topeka. Cruiser’s Howe facility expanded to LaGrange. Also I believe Grumman Olson from Sturgis expanded its operations to LaGrange. There is Linking Michiana, owned by Maria Miller. It is a nonprofit organization to “link” people to jobs. Reason 4 Hope is a nonprofit working on bringing aid, faith and hope to those less fortunate in the community.”
The new businesses reflect the entrepreneurial blossoming in tough economic times. Sherman continued with Marlene’s Kuntry Kitchen, a new banquet facility started by two Amish women in a private home. Wingards Custom Plastics is Amish owned. They make signs they say last a “lifetime.” Silver Star Leather is another Amish owned business making purses and belts. Serenity Salon is a full-service beauty salon. Copper Top is a new restaurant. Crimson Studios is a freelance outfit doing architectural and CAD drawings.
“We track the visitor industry very closely,” said Gary Zehr, owner of Simple Sounds Music Store in Shipshewana. He is also the director of the Shipshewana Retail Merchants. “All of our membership dollars go to marketing. We are experiencing a solid growth, especially if you compare it to 2006 or 2007. Our visitor numbers are up according to the major players here in town. Our area attracts the older demographic. Although everyone is feeling a pinch, the older visitors are much more stable.
“We have an average membership of 126 businesses; this year we added 29 new members and only four have left.”
Zehr said there aren’t many empty storefronts in Shipshewana.