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regional rebound

Area retail sales see June surge as COVID-19 restrictions loosen

The spring months were pretty bleak at A Mess of Things in downtown Ottawa.

Co-owner Francie Skoflanc scraped through the pandemic, banding together with fellow retailers offering coupons on Mother’s Day gifts.

But late spring, when the pandemic restrictions were eased? That was another story.

Warm weather beckoned those with cabin fever outside, and Skoflanc found some of her best days when the state parks were filled to capacity, forcing tourists to look elsewhere for diversions.

“When Starved Rock was closed, a lot of people had nowhere to go, so they came to downtown Ottawa,” said Skoflanc, who also owns Cat’s Eye Wine Bar. “We saw a lot of people from out of town, especially from the suburbs and even from Texas, Arizona and New York – the states that were hit hard by the virus.”

It wasn’t just Skoflanc who enjoyed a turnaround.

The sales figures from June have been released, and most communities in Starved Rock Country saw a retail boost from nice weather and the reopening of restaurants and hair salons. The big winner arguably was Ottawa, which reversed its fortunes after three months in the red and set a June retail sales record that came in 7% above June 2019.

Even more impressive for Skoflanc is that Ottawa set that without the benefit of outdoor draws such as Riverfest and the wine festival.

“My sales have been right on target from last year, maybe even slightly above, even without all of those festivals going on,” she said.

The pandemic is far from finished, but the much-improved retail data suggests the beginning of a return to normal. Peru enjoyed a 6% sales increase in June compared with June 2019 and missed setting a same-month sales record by only $21,000.

Bob Vickrey, Peru’s director of economic development, called the increase “astonishing” when one considers how the calendar fell. June 2019 had five Saturdays and five Sundays, which are “big cash register” days, while June 2020 had only four Saturdays and four Sundays, yet still produced more sales.

“Once your backs are against the wall, as everyone’s back was during the COVID-19 shut-down, and you have that entrepreneurial spirit like the retailers in Peru have, you always find away to succeed,” Vickrey said.

Businesses in Mendota ended a pandemic-related losing streak with an 11% boost in June. Streator also is in positive territory after a miserable spring. Spring Valley has enjoyed a steady recovery and, like Ottawa, set a June record, albeit by a slim 1%.

Even those communities lingering in negative territory have positive news to fall back on.

June sales in La Salle and Oglesby were down from June 2019, but retailers in both cities can brag that sales exceeded their 10-year average for June by 4% and 19%, respectively.

Peyton Lamps owns Petals by Peyton in La Salle, a floral shop that closed twice this year – once during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and once when she caught it. Despite the twin setbacks, Lamps had a terrific Mother’s Day and agreed that business has improved since infection controls were loosened.

“It’s been wild,” Lamps said, “but I’m still doing well.”

Most tourist-driven economies enjoyed robust sales in June.

Princeton, which has marketed itself as a day-trip destination, enjoyed a 20% increase in June sales and enjoyed its second-best month on record.

That happened in Utica too. June brought so many visitors to Starved Rock that sales jumped 61% from June 2019 and led to the village’s second-best month ever.

“I’m not surprised that the numbers are high,” Utica Mayor David Stewart said. “Some of the businesses in town told me they had their best month ever. They’ve never been so busy.”

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