Bergstrom to Close

Bergstrom Automotive announced it is closing its Sturgeon Bay location Jan. 31, leaving its 20 employees jobless.

The closing of the Chrysler dealership comes as nationwide sales for the automaker are down 40 percent.

“In the current unprecedented economic climate we had to make the tough decision to close,” said a disappointed John Bergstrom, company chairman and CEO. “You take a small store and drop sales 40 percent and it just doesn’t work. It can’t survive.”

The move is yet another sign that the nation’s economic crisis is coming home to Door County. Area lodging, restaurant, and storeowners expect weaker than usual winter tourism.

Greg Stillman manages three Door County resorts open all year and said 2008 was a great year, but he saw a drop at the end of the year.

“I knew the holidays would be down because of how they fell, with Christmas and New Years being on a Wednesday,” he said. Throw in some ill-timed snowstorms and a bad economy, and he said there wasn’t much you could do. Looking to next summer he sees “fairly consistent advance reservations,” but a slow winter ahead.

Stillman said midweek reservations fell off in the last quarter.

“You see the average daily rate in the room tax reports are higher,” he said. “That indicates a drop in the cheaper, mid-week stays that are less expensive, while weekend bookings at a higher rate remained strong.”

Kevin Bauldry at the Homestead Suites in Fish Creek agreed.

“You’re seeing a drop during the week, and that’s usually when retirees are up here,” he said. “Those folks have been affected a little more by the downturn and are pinching pennies a little more.”

Bauldry said the holidays were fine, but pre-holiday occupancy was down.

But Robin Yost, general manager at Sister Bay’s Scandanavian Lodge, reports a solid December.

“We had a very good holiday season,” she said. “We were 90 percent full for New Year’s Eve, and ended up about the same as last year.”

She said next summer’s bookings are strong, though her visitors are cutting back on the length of their stay. In response the lodge is doing more promotion of three and four-night specials.

Stillman and Bauldry said the summer of 2009 looks good, but Stillman said advance bookings aren’t as complete an indicator as they once were. Today’s travelers have a vast array of information available at the click of a mouse and don’t need to commit months in advance.

“Travelers have become accustomed to being able to make a last-second decision,” Stillman said. “They can check the weather, events, and availability all at the last moment.”

This makes it more important than ever to maintain top-of-mind awareness of Door County, he said, adding that room tax dollars make that much easier.

Lars Johnson said it has been slower than usual at Al Johnson’s restaurant in Sister Bay.

“Spring can’t come soon enough,” he said. “December and January are always our two slowest months, but it’s really quiet this year.”

Johnson said he relies heavily on what lodging owners say about reservations in his projections, and he’s heard it will be a tough winter and spring. The restaurant has already made changes to compensate.

“We’ve done a lot of things internally. We’re operating with less people, and have laid off more than ever before. I think it’s going to get brutal for a lot of people this winter.”

Johnson doesn’t foresee the economy having such a drastic affect come peak season, however.

“I think lodging numbers will be back in July and August, because that’s a different clientele,” he said.

Denise Bhirdo owns Bhirdo’s gas station and convenience store in Sister Bay and hears from business owners every day. December was not good.

“It sounds like the holidays were OK, but it was slow in December up until Christmas,” she said. “I think all the bad weather down south really hurt us because it stopped a lot of people from traveling.”

Business owners expressed hope for a decent February, with Valentine’s Day and Winter Games giving a boost to offset a quiet January, March and April. Tourism dependent businesses can hope for a summer turnaround, but at Bergstrom that’s not an option.

John Bergstrom said the company is working to find ways to help their workers who will now be out of a job. The land and building on Duluth Ave. will be put on the market.

Bergstrom operates 25 dealerships around the state and is headquartered in Neenah. The Sturgeon Bay location has been in operation for about 10 years.

The company cut 140 jobs in October state-wide, reducing a workforce that peaked at about 1,400 employees.