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As the airport shuts down, local businesses prepare for more of the same

A sushi chef prepares food at a small sushi bar.
Sheets Studios
Local sushi restaurant Kampai expects its menu and prices to remain similar to current rates despite the current airport closure.

This story comes to Wyoming Public Radio through a partnership with KHOL/Jackson Hole Community Radio.

The restaurant Kampai in downtown Jackson brings a slice of Japan to Northwest Wyoming. On the menu is wagyu beef, New Zealand king salmon and caviar. Dan "Jiggy" Janjigian is general manager at the restaurant, and he said if you're eating fish there, it's going to be fresh. That's despite the fact that the Pacific Ocean is nearly 800 miles away.

"If we place an order that's coming from Toyosu Market in Japan, it'll be about two and a half days between when we call and we talk to our buyer on the ground in Tokyo until it lands on our doorstep," Janjigian said.

A sushi chef cuts into a fish.
Sheets Studios
Products served at Kampai often come on trucks from Denver, Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls.

That quality comes at a hefty price. The average sushi roll costs around $25. But Janjigian said about half of his customers since he opened last year have been locals.

"For me, that was really what I wanted to bring in, is people to have an outlet for them to have a really nice meal and high-quality service and exceptional food," he said. "Somewhere to go out and have a date night or a special occasion night that was outside of the norm."

Like many restaurants in the region, Kampai is currently closed for a few weeks during the shoulder season. But when it reopens, the menu is going to look basically the same, despite the fact that the Jackson Hole Airport is closed through late June for runway construction and FedEx flights can't land locally.

Most of Janjigian's products are delivered on trucks from Denver or Salt Lake City, and those supply lines will remain.

"Any day you're sitting and looking out the window, you might see eight or 10 FedEx trucks in a 10-minute span of time. They're not just going to stop," Janjigian said. "I would imagine that they're still coming from Idaho Falls or Driggs, or they'll work it out to get here."

And it's not just truckers who will keep coming. The number of visiting tourists isn't expected to fall much either, according to President and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce Anna Olson.

"From our forecast booking occupancy, we're really seeing very little, if any, impact through Memorial Day," she said.

As the summer picks up, it's a slightly different story. Olson said a lot of folks are planning large get-togethers and events for July and August once the airport is back open.

"June is where we're going to see, at the moment, it's forecast anywhere from 10-15% down in terms of rooms booked compared to last year," she said. "And that is obviously impacted by the airport because you can see it immediately goes up on the 25 of June. And demand for the rest of the summer is ahead of last year."

10-15% may sound like a lot, but it's actually not when you consider how much of Wyoming's tourism is based visitors arriving in cars and filling up rooms on a last-minute basis. Olson said she's seeing increased demand for rental cars and shuttles from Idaho Falls, Rock Springs and even Montana airports like Bozeman.

"In 2020, you know, air travel was down 35% and yet we saw an increase in drive [visitors] and increase in sales tax collections and an increase in lodging tax collections," Olson said.

At the end of the day, the people most impacted by the closure are locals planning vacations and business trips. At the airport, some workers are taking time off but those that still want hours have work to do, according to Communications Manager Meg Jenkins.

"The airport family itself is getting used to such a quiet terminal. It's really bringing a lot of memories back to the beginning of COVID," she said. "We were down in enplanements and had 15, 20 people traveling through the airport daily."

Jenkins said she's been getting a lot of questions about what exactly is going on in terms of construction. And she wants to make clear that the airport is not widening the runway or adding a second one to take in bigger planes-both rumors she's heard around town.

Reflecting on the bigger picture, she also said another project like this is unlikely to happen in her lifetime.

"We've never lived through this type of project, so it'll be really interesting looking back on the 78-day closure and seeing all of the differences and the exciting takeaways that we'll learn through this process," Jenkins said.

Most importantly, the engineering firm on the project has never been late on a runway opening in 70 years. It also has a $1 million incentive to complete the work on time, according to Jenkins. So, those flights scheduled for June 28 are almost certain to be in service.

"We're just really taking advantage of this closure to knock a bunch of things out at that airport and really get it all improved, and [we're] really excited to welcome the community back at the end of June," Jenkins said.

Meanwhile, the chamber of commerce is further studying how tourists that drive differ from air travelers, and Grand Teton National Park plans to use this quiet time to look into noise impacts from the airport.

Sushi chefs work at Kampai in Jackson.
Sheets Studios
Dan Janjigian, general manager of Kampai, said he doesn’t expect business to slow down much during the airport closure.

For Janjigian, a slight decrease in diners at Kampai could even be a good thing, allowing even more locals to visit, but he's not counting on that happening.

"After having been in town for 18 years, I just see [the number of visitors] growing and growing and, with a lean winter, I can see the parks opening up a little earlier and the tourism getting here faster without the airport's help," he said. "It doesn't seem to stop the flow of people. Whether it's cloudy or smoky or whatever it might be, they're still coming to Jackson."

Indeed, the latest figures show that hotel bookings were up over the winter in Jackson Hole despite a weak snow year at local ski resorts, and national parks in the area saw record visitation in 2021.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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