On a typical summer day, lines at Richardson's Ice Cream Parlor wind out the door as kids and parents wait impatiently for an oversized scoop of rainbow sherbet or chocolate chip cookie dough.
But on this August afternoon in South Lake Tahoe, California, despite the perfect ice-cream weather, there is hardly a soul in sight. In fact, the number of people behind the counter outnumber the customers in the shop.
In this resort town, they call it the shoulder season, when the crowds begin to dissipate and business slows down, and it comes a lot earlier these days than it used to. August was once the time when hotel rates would climb, and crowds would be at their peak all around the lake. But over the last several years, the tourist dollars that local merchants depend on are drying up earlier and earlier.
The culprit is a new trend in education that has swept public school districts around California.
Public schools from San Francisco to the suburbs of Sacramento are beginning their school years in mid-August, abandoning a decades-old tradition of starting after Labor Day, and taking an unintended toll on the local economy.
"Our shoulder season is getting longer and longer," says Carol Chaplin, president and chief executive officer of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. "We are always seasonally driven. The shoulder seasons are longer now, and, for some of our businesses, it makes it hard to breathe sometimes."
Educators offer varying reasons for starting the school year earlier. Some say it helps students gain a couple of extra weeks of instruction before Advanced Placement tests. Others say it helps lower the achievement gap between those kids who can afford private activities during the summer and those who often stay home watching television or playing video games. Educators also like the ability to end the fall semester before the winter holiday break, instead of scheduling final exams in mid-January, after a two-week layoff from school.
"There's a lot of competition out there for hotel rooms, and the demand is just no longer there."
This accelerated school year is not just a California phenomenon. The shortened summer break started to gain popularity in the mid-1990s, and has grown steadily ever since. Today, the August start date is a trend that has taken hold from Oklahoma City to Indianapolis. Its merits continue to be debated by parents and policymakers alike. In Arizona, state lawmakers introduced a measure to force school districts to start after Labor Day, citing higher energy costs associated with keeping schools cool during the hottest month of the year.
The early end to summer is having some unintended consequences on resort towns like South Lake Tahoe. Resorts often can't open until June because of volatile weather, and business owners say they don't fully recapture the revenue lost by the shortened summer, even though the summer season starts earlier than it used to.
Jerry Bindel is the general manager of Aston Hotels & Resorts. His Lakeland Village property includes a 260-unit condominium hotel, with 1.4 miles of private beach of Tahoe's south shore, just minutes from the Nevada border.
By mid-August, rates at his resort typically drop 20 percent over their summertime peak, as occupancy falls to as low as half of total capacity.
"We just can't command those high rates anymore at this time of year," he says. "There's a lot of competition out there for hotel rooms, and the demand is just no longer there."
Bindel and other Lake Tahoe business owners say the economic impacts of a shorter summer have been offset, for now, by a growing state and national economy that has boosted overall tourist spending. But Bindel fears that the early school year could leave his business and others in the area exposed in the event of another downturn.
And that could lead to a call for change.
"If the economy sours again and we go into recession again," he says, " I think you'll see hotels and other businesses up here pushing for schools to go back to starting after Labor Day."