Stanly County tourism numbers declined considerably for 2020 due to pandemic

While the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Stanly County in many ways over the past year and a half, one of the biggest, at least from a financial perspective, has been its affect on the local economy — especially last year with so many people staying at home.

Visitor spending in Stanly County was down 27 percent in 2020, falling to $64.25 million from a record-high of $88.01 million in 2019, according to a report released by the North Carolina Department of Commerce last week. In comparison, the statewide decrease last year was almost 32 percent.

Stanly’s decline was similar to what the majority of counties in the state went through last year. All told, 86 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties experienced spending declines last year.

“The pandemic closed us down,” said Chris Lambert, director of the Stanly County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “All of our tourism attractions restaurants, vineyards, everything that people usually go to were stopped.”

The one silver lining was that because so many businesses were closed, Stanly experienced an uptick in the number of people visiting its many natural attractions such as Morrow Mountain, Falls Reservoir, Badin Lake and Lake Tillery — many coming from other counties.

“Yes we saw a decline which we definitely expected, but our natural attractions kind of held us above water,” Lambert said, “and right now we’ve seen a great influx of tourists combating what happened last year.”

The decrease in visitor spending in Stanly County in 2020 was the first regression in over a decade, according to Lambert, who’s been with the Visitors Bureau for about 16 years. The last time the county saw a decline in spending was in 2008 and 2009, largely a result of the recession in 2007.

Tourists in Stanly County spent $24.2 million in 2020 on food and beverages, which accounted for about 38 percent of the $64 million total and was the most spent in any particular category. Visitors also spent $14.6 million on transportation, $12.7 million on lodging, $7.2 million on recreation and $5.5 million on retail.

While many larger, neighboring counties brought in more tourism revenue than Stanly last year, they also experienced more significant decreases in tourism spending. Mecklenburg, which generated $2.8 billion, experienced a 51 percent decrease while Cabarrus, which brought in $288 million, experienced a 44 percent decrease.

When compared with several other similar size counties across North Carolina, Stanly brought in less revenue than most and experienced a larger decline in spending.

The data also shows the uncertainty caused by the pandemic played a key role in a decline in the tourism workforce. The tourism industry in Stanly County lost 113 jobs from 2019 to 2020, falling from 640 people employed to 527. That represents an 18 percent reduction in the workforce. Tourism jobs last year accounted for $18 million in income; they accounted for $21 million in 2019.

Stanly tourism in 2020 generated $2.8 million in state taxes and $63.2 million in local taxes, creating $93.74 in savings per resident.

With many business and tourist draws back open this year, Lambert said he expects a rebound when the report for 2021 is unveiled next fall, but he is not sure if it will get back to 2019 levels.

“We’re definitely going to show an increase, hopefully,” Lambert said. “As far as hitting 80 something million dollars? I don’t know. We’re just going to have to see how it plays out.”