Flagstaff Moves from Tourist Way Station to Destination

Flagstaff, AZ – People started flocking to Flagstaff, Arizona in the 1890s when the small timber town began to provide stagecoach rides to the Grand Canyon. The trip required patience. The 70-mile ride took most of the day. Eventually a train to the canyon and the invention of the automobile made the trip a lot easier.

Flagstaff historian Richard Mangum says the first car trip was attempted in 1902.

"They thought they could do it in five hours," Mangum says. "In fact it took them several days. They had breakdowns. They got lost. They almost froze to death. There was no place to buy gasoline along the way. But they did make it. Even though they had to come back on the train and have the horses pull the car."

It wasn't until the 1920s when automobile traffic surpassed train trips to the canyon. Then, Route 66 was paved and Flagstaff saw even more tourists. And the town saw another bump when Interstate 17 was completed in 1970s.

"All of Northern Arizona cashed in on tourism as much as they could," Mangum says.

And despite the current economic slowdown across the country, tourists are still visiting Flagstaff. While the Bed, Board and Beverage tax collections are down about 2% compared to last year, Flagstaff's tourism slump is minimal compared to the rest of the state.

Part of the reason for that, says downtown Flagstaff businessman Jim Babbitt, is that the city's historic downtown has become a major tourist destination in its own right. It's now the number one attraction for Flagstaff visitors. Grand Canyon is number two.

Babbitt is taking a break in Heritage Square, on a bench made out of welded train parts. His family's old department store used to stand right where he's sitting. He says there was a time in the early 1980s when downtown was essentially a ghost town, with vacant store fronts, a dirt parking lot and crime.

"We were at a pretty low point when part of the building was torn down and the rest was actually sold," Babbitt says. "It was just killing me. Fortunately we were able to reacquire the property and take off its modern fa ade and restore the old red Moencopi sandstone. If you don't know it already I'm in love with the building and with the downtown it's been such a big part of my life."

It took several years for Babbitt, other property owners and the city to restore historic downtown and make it the bustling attraction it is today.

"It turned out better than any of us had anticipated," Babbitt says. "We were down for the art walk the first Friday of August and you could hardly walk on the sidewalk. There were so many people here."

Instead of just lunch on the way to the Grand Canyon visitors now stay in Flagstaff an average of about two and a half nights.

But others, like Phoenix resident Chuck Burns and his family, are staying even longer. Burns, who's pushing a stroller through Lowell Observatory's activity center just before sunset, is staying four nights.

"I have to say, Flagstaff, you know five years ago it didn't seem that interesting to us, but it has so many things to do now," Burns says. "We really wish we were staying longer to do more things. It's really got a lot to offer."

Outside as the sky turns purple, Burns says he hopes to see a meteor shower.

Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Jacki Lenners says a third of Flagstaff's tourists are from Arizona. And most of them, like Burns, are from the valley.

Flagstaff has not been hit as hard by the economy as compared to other larger cities throughout Arizona, Lenners says. "We've faired well and held our own. I think a lot of that has to do with our primary markets being Phoenix and Southern California. These are drive or short flight markets. People aren't giving up closer to home shorter trips."

But Flagstaff still has visitors who travel great distances.

J.R Murray, the general manager of Arizona Snowbowl, is scanning the guest book at Agassiz Lodge, high on the San Francisco Peaks.

"What do we have, Illinois, Georgia, Utah, Florida, South Africa," says Murray. "And that's just today. This is an informal survey but very much a cross section of the whole wide world."

Outside, the Heckathorn family from Phoenix peels off their rain ponchos. They've just ridden the Snowbowl sky ride on a cloudy monsoon morning.

The Heckathorns say they come to Flagstaff in the summer to beat the desert heat, and in the winter to ski. Many other visitors tout similar stories.

Murray says thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision the snow will soon be more consistent. The ski area has been given the go-ahead to use reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow.

"Once the marketplace realizes we have predictable consistent snow year in and year out," says Murray, "we will be able to commit to the marketplace. They will in be able to commit to planning their ski trips to Flagstaff, whereas now they cannot."

Snowbowl plans to start building snowmaking equipment next spring and have it ready for the following winter. It's projected to cost more than 10 million dollars.

Some downtown businesses complain snow doesn't really help them. They say when there's a storm everyone is up on the mountain, not spending money in town. During past dry winters retail sales have gone up.

But with snowmaking Murray hopes spending will even out. "The projection is almost 24 million dollars a year in visitor spending," he says. "So that is a number the community can take to the bank."

Just as restoring downtown reinvigorated tourism in Flagstaff in the 1990s, Murray hopes snowmaking will provide the next tourism jolt in years to come.