Many pool and spa store owners who closed shop during the economic downturn are returning to their home turfs and reopening for business.

Improving economic conditions in certain areas of the nation — especially throughout the Sunbelt states — are inspiring retailers to take a second look at the markets they’d left, and move in before those regions become too crowded.

“Guys I know who closed up shop have suddenly come back to open new stores in the same cities they left,” said Bill Long, general manager at SpaScapes in Rocklin, Calif.

Most retailers agree that the trouble started in early 2007 and that by summer of that year, many of their colleagues were closing their doors.

“Foot traffic just literally stopped,” said Jeff Hartman, president of Desert Hot Tubs in Phoenix. “At first, things were falling apart gradually, but by summer of ’07, we could tell it was time to turn the lights off.”

Hartman was one of many spa retailers in the greater Phoenix area who closed large showrooms that year. In the early 2000s, Desert had operated four showrooms, each greater than 10,000 square feet, but as traffic declined, the company was forced to shutter those properties one by one.

However, Hartman, like many other retailers, stayed in communication with his competitors — those who had closed shop as well as the few who managed to remain in business through an increasingly tough economy. As time passed, he and his competitors began to hear tales of upticks in sales. Over the past year, they've begun returning to their old stomping grounds to open new showrooms.

“We learned that our competitors were having some pretty good months,” Hartman said. “So I said, ‘You know what? We’re missing out. We need to get serious and open some locations.’”

In fact, positive economic signs have proven tempting even for retailers who had retired from the industry years ago. Todd Smith, president of Hot Tub Emporium in Sacramento, Calif., had sold his business back in 2004, but found himself drawn back to his old neighborhood as foot traffic at his former competitors’ stores began to increase.

“People don’t seem to be as worried about the economy and what’s around the next corner,” he said. “The overall attitude just seems a lot more positive than in previous years.”

Hartman, meanwhile, expressed a more cautious optimism. But it’s becoming clear that even hard-hit markets such as Phoenix hold opportunity for pool companies bold enough to step up and claim a piece of the action. “My factory representative just sent me my year-to-date numbers vs. last year, and we’re doing nearly four times what we were then,” Hartman said.

Though none of these retailers feels confident predicting exactly what the future will hold, it’s hard to ignore the numbers. As far as this year’s swim season goes, things are unquestionably looking up.