SISTERS — Business owners in Sisters are breathing easier for the first time in two years. Literally.
A summer free of wildfire smoke has brought a surge of visitors and business to shops and hotels in the western-themed town.
Sisters was one of the hardest hit Central Oregon towns affected by wildfire smoke in recent years, especially in 2017, when the Folk Festival was canceled due to the unhealthy smoke in the air. The cancellation felt like the last straw for businesses that had a tough summer because of wildfires and a total solar eclipse that did not bring as many visitors as expected.
“The smoke really puts a damper on everything,” Sisters City Manager Cory Misely said. “People are relieved this year from a livability perspective, from a tourism perspective and a quality-of-life perspective.”
After a mild wildfire season last summer and clear skies this year, Sisters is experiencing a steady increase in transient room tax dollars. Transient room tax collected from overnight stays in the city in June increased 21% from June 2017. In July, it increased 12% from July 2017.
August transient room tax has not been tallied yet this year. But August 2018 was 36% higher than August 2017, according to the city. Part of the increase in overnight stays relates to the Grandstay, a 37-room hotel that opened in May.
But the overall rise in visitors means more people in Sisters shopping at local businesses and dining at restaurants.
“Sisters Chamber of Commerce members are reporting significant increases in sales this year and the travel and tourism industry continues to grow,” said Judy Trego, executive director of the Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce. “In fact, Sisters has experienced double digit growth in overnight stays every year since 2014.”
The Sisters Folk Festival, a roots- and Americana-oriented event that draws thousands of people to venues downtown, is expecting a busy year with crowds filling the streets for various performances. The festival will begin Friday and runs through Sunday.
Festival organizers are focused on setting up the festival this year, rather than having to worry about wildfire smoke that causes health concerns for patrons and musicians. Even last summer had hazy skies during the festival from wildfire smoke. This year, there may be rain over the weekend, but no smoke is in the forecast.
Brad Tisdel, creative director for the Sisters Folk Festival, said event volunteers and staff don’t talk about the 2017 cancellation anymore. It feels like a distant memory.
The festival has since hired a new executive director, Crista Munro, and has plans to continue growing the festival each year.
“We need to move forward and be thrilled with the new direction and future of the organization and really elevate Sisters as a community the best we can,” Tisdel said.