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Wednesday, 09 October 2013 02:45

Businesses with ties to national parks suffering during shutdown

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out frFrom wedding planners to elk tour guides to non-profit organizations, the closing of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hasn’t only disrupted the livelihood of federal workers.

The park is home to a wide variety of outside enterprises working independently yet inextricably tied to it. In many ways, the federal impasse that caused the ongoing shutdown has hurt these operations more than the federal workers who have been furloughed.

 

Esther Blakely, owner and operator of Cataloochee Valley Tours, has stood by and watched the shutdown threaten her business. Blakely, operating with a park-issued permit, specializes in taking visitors into the valley to view the elk herd. The month of October — the height of the animal’s rut and the peak of fall foliage — is normally her busiest time of year. Tours are booked nearly every day of the week. But this time around it’s different.

“I’ve had to cease all my tours,” she said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Since the park closed last week and she had to turn away the tour group that had already booked a nearby hotel for their trip. She has spent a lot of her down time fielding countless phone calls from people asking if the valley is open to visitors. Because the National Parks Service’s website was shut down and the regular park staff members aren’t in their offices to answer the calls, people are calling her and she is delivering the bad news.

Unlike federal employees, who will most likely be reimbursed for their time out of work, Blakely doesn’t expect anything in return.

The best-case scenario for her is the shutdown ends sooner rather than later, and she can recoup part of the autumn tourist rush. In the mean time, she has been writing congressmen and senators asking them to set aside party politics and do right by the American people.

“Everyday I hope that it ends,” she said. “I’m just praying that it’s going to be short-lived, and we can get back on track.”

Blakely is not alone, either. The park-based horseback-riding outfit, the Smokemont Riding Stable, can’t take visitors on its equestrian tours. The voice recording left on the answering machine explains that, “Due to the government shutdown, Smokemont Riding Stable is temporarily closed.”

The wedding industry and a number of upset couples are also feeling the sting from the shutdown. According to the Smoky Mountain Wedding Association, more than 50 weddings are planned in the park in October. Planners are now scrambling to help couples that are changing their plans at the last minute, and dealing with couples that have just decided to cancel.

Wedding photographer Eric Gebhart was prepping for the peak of the wedding season when the park was closed, according to a news release from the association.

“October is normally the best month of the year for me,” he said. “But this year, it looks like it’s going to be a bust unless circumstances change quickly.”

Nonprofit organization Friends of the Smokies, a park advocacy group in Tennessee and North Carolina, had six trail outings planned for October. Two have already been cancelled. The next is scheduled for Wednesday, but the outlook is not promising.

Friends director on the North Carolina side, Holly Demuth, said the organization has had to play it by ear.

“It’s a balance between planning but knowing that the park could reopen tomorrow,” she said. “So, it’s a challenging place to be in.”

The effects of the shutdown will most likely extend beyond a handful of cancelled hikes, though. For the organization, October is a key month to connect with donors and gain donations from several donation boxes strategically placed throughout the park.

A drop in contributions will hinder the Friends’ efforts to put that money back into park projects like trail construction, erecting bear-safe food storage cables for backcountry campers and buying necessary gear and uniforms for park volunteers.

The silver lining in all of this, Demuth said, is people have looked to the Friends organization for updated information where the National Park Service is not providing it. Since the shutdown began, their phone has been ringing off the hook, and their Facebook page has garnered more than 1,200 additional likes.

Yet, Demuth doesn’t see that as making up for the ongoing closure.

“It’s challenging because Friends of the Smokies is raising support for the park, and when folks can’t get into the park, that makes it a bit challenging,” she said.

The nonprofit hardest hit by the park closure is the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which manages the park stores, publications and other paraphernalia. The day the federal shutdown was announced, the park’s visitor centers and gift shops closed, and the association laid off 45 of its 70 employees.

November and December are booming times for retail sales, but October is the make or break month for the association — when park visitation is at its highest and visitors are eager to buy maps, books and other merchandise from one of the stores. Though the association runs an online store and three small bookshops outside of park limits, the large majority of its sales are done within the park, during the peak of tourism.

“Our organization is going to be on its knees,” said the association’s Executive Director Terry Maddox. “We’re going to be crippled.”

The money made from the sale of park merchandise and publications is first used to cover the operating costs of the association. What is left over is given back to the park: during the past 12 years, the association has provided $22 million. In October, the association typically sees revenues of around $1.2 million, its best month by far.

Maddox said even if the federal shutdown is ended by a compromise over increasing the debt limit, with an anticipated deadline of Oct. 17, the organization would have already lost an estimated half-million dollars or more. Plus it will have to rehire all its staff members, many of whom may have moved on to other jobs by then. Unlike federal employees, they have little chance of reimbursement for work missed.

To make matters worse, the organization is sitting on more than $1 million of merchandise it purchased in anticipation of the influx of fall tourists, merchandise it now can’t sell. 

Maddox said he hasn’t slept very well during the past week and can’t help but be a bit disillusioned with the nation’s lawmakers.

“It seems our national politicians can give a rat’s behind, they go by their own little agendas,” he said. “I’m pretty discouraged right now, probably like a lot of people in this country.”

 

 

Inn closure highlights controversy surrounding shutdown

The operator of the Pisgah Inn is fighting National Park Service efforts to close the establishment during the federal shutdown, claiming it can remain open independent of the government.

Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway east of Waynesville, the inn was ordered to close its restaurant and clear its rooms of guests by last Thursday evening. At first, the inn took steps to comply. However, the following day it reopened for lunch, prompting action by parkway rangers who blocked its entrance.

Although inn operator Bruce O’Connell, 60, had intended to remain open, he said having park rangers turning away customers effectively forced him to close. The rangers stayed in front of the inn around the clock to make sure customers did not enter the premises.

“I don’t think I can beat that,” O’Connell said. “I think that was it — this was our stand, making a point.”

And although the inn was closed as of the beginning of this week, O’Connell said he was readying a lawsuit against the parkway and park service that would allow him to remain open.

O’Connell’s defiance won the support of a small group of supporters during the weekend, who arrived to protest what they saw as heavy-handed action by the park service. The closure of the cherished stop on the parkway, known for its food and windowed dining area with a stunning view of the mountains, also disappointed patrons at the height of tourist season who were being turned away.

The employees will also suffer. The inn employs more than 100 people, including servers, housekeepers and maintenance positions. Most of the service-oriented positions will miss out on one of their busiest months.

“All these people without a paycheck — it’s useless and for no reason,” said Beth Robinson, from Etowah.

Robinson was traveling with two friends visiting from out of state. They drove up to the parkway with the hope of dining at the inn. They arrived just as it was closing, for the first time, last Thursday. They were allowed to stay for tea and hot drinks but couldn’t get a meal.

Helen Chase Ford, who traveled from Abbeville, S.C., to spend a day with a friend on the parkway, was also disappointed that the inn was embroiled in the federal shutdown. She echoed the sentiments of others by questioning the logic behind closing a private operation.

“I don’t see how it’s fair that they’re making this private business shut down,” she said. “This has nothing to do with the National Park Service.”

But the inn is not entirely private either. It exists in a gray area between public and private. Operated by a private company, the inn works under a contract with the park service to make use of federally owned buildings and facilities on public property. 

During the shutdown, the park service ordered the halt of private operations within national parks. Bookstores and a visitor center operated by the nonprofit Smoky Mountains Association were closed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as were the privately run elk tours in Cataloochee Valley, a horseback riding outfit at Smokemont, and another inn located along the parkway in Virginia.

The Pisgah Inn should be treated no differently, said Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the parkway. Stinnett said he was operating under the direction of the director of the National Park Service to block entry to the inn and ensure it remained close.

“This is federal land, and all the buildings are federally owned,” Stinnett said.

O’Connell, who has operated the inn since the late 1970s, contends that he doesn’t need the park service to stay open and to provide for his customers. He said his staff is self-sufficient and can make do in the case of a government shutdown.

However, his arguments didn’t sway the position of the higher-ups in the park service. Park Service spokesperson Bill Reynolds said the agency has a legal obligation to close down completely when there is a lapse in funding, which was caused by Congress’ failure to agree on a federal budget.

“We explained it to them that they could not stay open independently,” Reynolds said. “The facilities there are all owned by the National Park Service. We are required by law, when there is lapse in funding, to close all visitor facilities.”

The parkway remained open however — as did other through roads in national parks, such as U.S. 441 through the Smokies. But all the bathroom facilities, visitor centers and campgrounds along the parkway were closed, and only a skeleton crew of law enforcement and essential maintenance personnel left on to oversee the motor road.

That the parkway wasn’t closed, but the facilities were, was another justification O’Connell used to try and remain opened. He would have had one of the only operating bathrooms along the nearly 500-mile long parkway and been one of the only lodging stops for the lines of cars driving the road during the busiest month of the year.

The parkway sees an average 70,000 visitors each day in October. Typically, the 51-room Pisgah Inn is full up and its restaurant packed all month long, before shutting for the winter season in November.

This year, instead of scrambling to manage a booming business and hordes of patrons, O’Connell is fighting the federal government to open his doors. 

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “At what point does a man have to do what a man has to do?”

— By Andrew Kasper

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