Economic impact of Burning Man on Gerlach is a question mark
August 28, 2017
The annual migration of “Burners” traveling Highway 447 through the tiny town of Gerlach on their way to the Burning Man festival has begun.
There is no doubt Gerlach sees its fair share of travelers in on their way to the festival. But the economic impact to the town is unclear.
Brian Bonnenfant, project manager for the Center for Regional Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, said some unofficial economic numbers have been tossed around, but an in-depth study has never been conducted to report the economic impact of Burning Man on Gerlach.
“I can say that the event has never been properly surveyed to tease out the key economic impact inputs; so the reported estimates suffer from gross exaggeration,” Bonnenfant said in an email to the NNBW. “In order to determine the true economic impact from Burning Man on the town of Gerlach, a survey needs to be conducted on the attendees and (Burning Man) employees to determine actual spending amounts by type of commodity/service. Of course, only those purchases made in Gerlach can be included (which needs to be specifically questioned in the survey).”
Any expenditure dollars would have to be filtered outside of Gerlach depending on the commodity or service. For example, all retail purchases in Gerlach can only include a mark-up price (approximately 25 percent) because most, if not all retail items are manufactured out of town.
Without accurate numbers available, NNBW traveled to Gerlach to speak with a few of the residents to understand the economic impact Burning Man has to local businesses.
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Friends of the Black Rock High Rock, a nonprofit that not only works with conservation groups to preserve the Black Rock Canyon and High Rock Canyon area, but also works to promote Gerlach along with other smaller communities in the region. It operates Gerlach’s visitors center, which has souvenirs and educational material on the town and surrounding region.
Michael Myers, executive director of Friends of Black Rock High Rock, said in previous years, the nonprofit has tried to get a head count of Burning Man attendees that came through town, but found it very difficult to keep track of the masses moving through.
Regardless, he said, Burners generated approximately $4,000 in gross revenue last year for Friends, probably around one-third of its revenue for the year.
Some of that revenue comes from Last Chance Outpost, a temporary Burning Man consignment shop operated by Judi Morales-Gibson and housed at the Friends of the Black Rock High Rock building during Burning Man. Morales-Gibson, a seamstress by trade, lives in the North Lake Tahoe area, but travels to Gerlach several times a year and has attended Burning Man herself.
“We sell functional items second-hand for Burners such as cargo shorts, fresh socks, bandanas; a lot of fun stuff,” Morales-Gibson said. “We also have some essential stuff that people passing through may need such as toiletries. It’s a great benefit to Friends,” which receives a portion of her proceeds.
Myers added that attendees, event workers and organizers,are usually well stocked with supplies before, during and after the event.
“Most of these people are pretty much self-contained out there,” Myers said. “We don’t get as much business as you think. They usually have just about everything they need.”
Still, Myers said people of Gerlach make an effort to entice Burning Man travelers to stop.
“Through the early years of Burning Man, the idea was ‘Don’t stop in Gerlach, avoid that place,'” Myers said. “Now we have them saying, ‘Please stop here and help out local stores.'”
Planet X Pottery, owned by John and Rachel Bogard is located several miles northwest of Gerlach off of Highway 447. It makes and sells its own line of porcelain and stoneware pottery along with a line of paintings and is open most of the year.
John Bogard says the business, which he opened in 1974, makes only “a few hundred dollars or so” each year on Burning Man. He says may get a few Burners who stop when heading home.
“Of the 70,000 or so people that come up here for Burning Man, we get a very small percentage of people coming through here,” Bogard said.
The town’s largest businesses, Bruno’s Country Club & Motel, was closed the day NNBW traveled to Gerlach, as were a couple of eateries. Residents said they probably were temporarily closed getting prepared for the influx of people in the next few weeks.
Besides brick and mortar stores, land owners in Gerlach also rent out their property to temporary vendors such as LightUpWorld.com, which sells items such as knick knacks and apparel associated the playa event. The vendor, headquartered in Florida, operates other stations for similar events around the country.
The operators, who identified themselves as “Party Marty” and “Robert,” say they get a steady stream at the shop set up under a tent on the north edge of Gerlach.
“We’ll keep the booth open throughout the event and since we’re on the edge of town we’re the last stop before people head out to the desert,” Marty said.
“People often will buy stuff either for next year’s event or for souvenirs to take home with them,” Robert said.
LightUpWorld.com is in its seventh year operating during Burning Man. The vendors said they benefitted this year after a couple other regular vendors failed to obtain the required permits in time and didn’t set up shop this year.
While Gerlach residents generally consider even a little boost to the local economy helpful, Bonnenfant said that conducting a future study would take a considerable commitment of time and resources to survey a few thousand Burning Man attendees.
“Until somebody invests in such a study, there is no way to back-of-napkin an economic impact analysis of Burning Man without asking very specific questions from attendees and employees,” Bonnenfant said.