Some rooms to spare in Rifle, for now |

Some rooms to spare in Rifle, for now

Dale Shrull
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Citizen Telegram

RIFLE, Colorado – Trent Pierson decided to hold off on any improvements to his Buckskin Motel until business picks up again.

Elizabeth Kudasik decided this was the perfect time to tackle some improvements to her Winchester Motel, since it’s easier to get work done when rooms are empty.

Tyler Hartman and a friend were weary travelers cruising down Interstate 70 on their way to Moab, Utah when they spotted the La Quinta Inn in south Rifle and decided to stop for the night.

With the recent openings of the Hampton Inn and Super 8 in south Rifle, there are now eight different places to find a room.

Looking back to a couple just one year ago, and there was a powerful argument that more than eight motels could easily turn a profit in Rifle. Actually, a ninth motel was planned, but after financing dried up, all that

remains is the weed-infested concrete foundation next to Walmart.

Times have suddenly changed now that the natural gas industry has halted much its production operations around Western Garfield County.

“Things were good,” Pierson said. “Then things went bad. I’ve gone from over 90 percent full to about 30 percent.”

Kudasik has seen a similar drop in occupancy to her 40-unit Winchester Motel on Railroad Avenue.

“It’s much slower now,” she said.

But the slowdown and vacant rooms did prompt her to get busy with some improvements.

“We completely remodeled 25 rooms,” she added.

The natural gas industry and the related businesses that come with it, have a large transient employee-base.

That’s what the Buckskin, Winchester and basically all Rifle motels depend on to stimulate their business.

Workers will travel to wherever their company sends them.

And that means temporary housing. That’s why large chains like La Quinta, Hampton Inn, Super 8 and Holiday Inn, which recently opened an 80-room facility in Silt, looked to the region as a profitable opportunity.

All Rifle motels have microwaves and refrigerators in rooms, and the Centennial Suites is an extended stay facility with kitchenettes.

Right now there are 547 rooms available in Rifle.

Just four years ago, there were 218 motel rooms in town, making rooms somewhat scarce when gas drilling was a booming industry in the county.

For the older mom and pop operations like the Buckskin, Winchester, Rusty Cannon and Red River Inn, when the transient workforce leaves town, it’s harder to compete.

Some think that eight motels is too many for Rifle.

“[Rifle] has absolutely overbuilt,” Kudasik said. “Competition is healthy but this kind of supply and not enough demand is not healthy.”

Pierson purchased the Buckskin in 2002 when he decided to escape the “rat race and traffic” of San Francisco where he worked as a nurse and in the computer industry.

During the good times, the Buckskin ran about 92 percent full year-round, Pierson said.

Then times went bad.

“March was harsh. We instantly went to 30 percent,” he said.

He agrees with Kudasik that Rifle has overbuilt.

“The problem is you only have a certain pool of people coming to town,” he said.

Rifle has some tourist-based opportunities but Pierson said that the town is not necessarily a destination place.

His motel, built in the early 1950s, most likely took its name from the once popular hunting industry that stimulated the Rifle economy every fall. The hunters still come, but not like they used to.

Pierson said he gets a few hunters, usually in the colder second season. There are also a few anglers who come from out of town to fish the local rivers, creeks and lakes.

There’s a handful of rock climbers, usually from Europe, who come to scale the world-class limestone cliffs of Rifle Mountain Park.

But for the most part, the success of the Buckskin, and the other Rifle motels, depend on the transient workforce as its main source of revenue.

That’s why the national chain Hampton Inn picked Rifle as a place to build.

“The oil and gas was already here and Rifle seems to be a place that needed more rooms,” said Becky Callison, director of sales for Hampton Inn. “There’s a lot of business and transient travelers that [Rifle was] missing and now there’s more of a chance that those dollars will remain here and help the local economy.”

Whether or not Rifle has built too many motels varies depending on the source.

Even some Hampton Inn officials were skeptical.

“The concerns were mixed,” Callison said. “Some management had concerns and others did not.”

Now that they’ve opened, Callison said they are pleased with the results.

“We’re about 55 to 60 percent full since we opened July 23,” she said. “We’re very pleased with the business that has come.”

Mike Cross is the co-owner of the Rusty Cannon Motel, which was built in 1981. He thinks it’s good to have more motel rooms for Rifle.

“Last year there wasn’t enough rooms for people, so it’s good that there are more now,” he said.

He estimates that a little more than half his 88-room facility went to transient gas field workers.

The Rusty Cannon actually opened at the end of the oil shale boom of the early 1980s. Cross said the motel opened, then two weeks later the infamous Black Sunday occurred when Exxon Corporation shut down its operation leaving 2,000 workers jobless.

There is one indisputable fact: More rooms means more revenue for Rifle. That is, if the rooms are full.

A 2.5 percent lodging tax was passed by voters in 2007 and went into effect in January 2008.

According to Charles Kelty, finance director for the city of Rifle, the lodging tax brought in $185,938 for 2008, and $89,189 through June 2009.

That’s only a 4 percent decrease over the first six months of 2009.

He added that there’s no way of telling right now if the lodging tax numbers are just shifting from one motel to another since there are more to choose from now.

The lodging tax goes into a visitor’s improvement fund that is supervised by a board. Funds will go to marketing, historic preservation and other improvement projects, Kelty said.

All together with the state, county, city and lodging taxes, visitors will pay a total of 9.9 percent in tax for a room in Rifle.

As far as the an opinion whether Rifle has possibly overbuilt, Kelty says it’s too early to tell, especially considering the economic downturn.

“I don’t think anyone expected the economy to turn around like it did,” he said.

Pierson worries the 2.5 percent lodging tax and the 9.9 percent overall tax rate could push potential customers out of town.

“We’re now competing against Silt and Parachute because they don’t have that tax,” he said.

The future is looking up for Rifle and more room availability is a big reason why, according to Annick Pruett, president and CEO of the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce.

More rooms means more people have the opportunity to stay in Rifle, she said.

“We looked at a 99 percent occupancy rate last year, and that was problematic for people who wanted to come here and stay but couldn’t find a room,” she said.

With so many of the rooms occupied with the transient workforce before, Pruett said it was always a battle keeping visitors in Rifle. And when they left town, so did the dollars that could pour into other Rifle businesses.

“Now, we’re able to accommodate the last minute travelers and the folks coming for longer visits. They will now stay in Rifle and help our local economy,” she said.

The added rooms, have changed the marketing approach for the Rifle chamber.

“We are much more active and much more aggressive in our marketing now because they can stay here, we have the rooms for them,” she said.

Rifle recently got some good publicity from some national magazines.

In 2008, Outdoor Life Magazine ranked Rifle No. 17 for Towns for Sportsmen, and this year Rifle nabbed the No. 27 ranking for America’s Best Hunting and Fishing Towns.

Other good marketing opportunities for Rifle and the chamber, Pruett said.

She used a recent Little League tournament as a prime example of what Rifle can now offer. The tournament was a big success and families were able to stay in the Rifle motels instead of traveling in from other nearby locations.

Although the motel occupancy rates are a little down right now, Pruett believes that the motel industry in Rifle has a very strong future.

Pierson will keep battling the competition and keep trying to luring the transient workforce to the Buckskin.

From his reasonable rates – both nightly and weekly – to his remodeling, to the barbecue pits outside, Pierson’s plan is to cater to the workers.

“We’ve been remodeling from the inside out ever since I bought the place. We were planning to finish the outside but when [the gas industry] pulled out we put everything on hold,” he said.

Pierson wants to give the workers a little slice of home at his 25-unit motel.

“We want to have a nice place that’s a home away from home,” he said.

He’s not sure if the big chain motels can make it. Lots of rooms and big mortgages could be problematic if things don’t turn around soon.

He does think that Rifle may have overbuilt but he’s not worried about his property.

“I’m in pretty good position, but my mortgage is from 8 years ago,” he said.

Kudasik has the same feelings.

“I can lower prices to compete and I don’t have a big mortgage. They have prime location but we can compete.”

For Cross, he had a good summer run until Exxon workers were relocated to mancamps on the Roan Plateau. He knows that the gas industry will still be the key in the future.

“If the drilling returns we’ll be OK,” he said.

When the gas industry will return is also open to a variety of opinions. Some say soon, others say three years or more.

Optimism is also in the eye of the beholder.

Pierson and Kudasik are cautious. They’ve seen the ups and downs of the region before.

Callison, who relocated from Fort Worth, Texas, sees great potential for the future.

“We’re poised on the precipice of a very busy time,” she said.

The future will answer the question whether or not Rifle has overbuilt motels. For now, if you’re in need of a room, there’s plenty to find and choose from.

“Now that I know Rifle has so many motels, this is the perfect place to stop for the night for us,” Hartman said as he and his friend prepared to get back onto the interstate.

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