Two weeks after heavy rains flooded Duluth, closed a major state park and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, locals are hoping for a big boost from the Independence Day holiday.
Officials there are expecting big crowds. Typically 20,000 people cram into Bayfront Park in Duluth to watch the big fireworks display, with another 80,000 or so others scattered across the city watching from other vantage points. With the holiday falling on a Wednesday this year, people are anticipating maybe slightly smaller crowds this year, with not as many people driving up for the weekend.
But still, a lot of people will be converging on Duluth tomorrow wearing their red, white and blue, and they will doubtless be welcomed with open arms. Visit Duluth says that tourism-related businesses lost about $3 million in the week and a half or so after the floods. And that doesn't take into account this past weekend, when hotels and restaurants saw their business still off by 15 to 20 percent.
That's a big deal because in Duluth the summer months, June, July, and August, are when the tourism industry really makes hay.
The mayor and others have been preaching for the past couple weeks that the city is open for business, that the vast majority of the city was not affected by the floods, and business owners think that message is starting to sink in. But there are still a lot of misconceptions out there. Everyone saw those photographs of the sinkholes with cars deep inside them, of homes and businesses underwater. Several people I spoke with mentioned how the images of the Grandma's restaurant underwater up by the mall outside of town really had a negative effect on tourism, because visitors not as familiar with Duluth just assumed it was the famous Grandma's in Canal Park next to the Lift Bridge.
One hotel manager even said that some guests just plain didn't believe her when they told them that they weren't underwater and it was ok for them to come. But she's sold out tomorrow night, and said reservations really started to pick up this week. So she's hoping they've turned the corner, but she said there's still a lot of nervousness among her fellow hotel and restaurant managers.
On Monday night the City Council approved spending $75,000 on a new advertising blitz, which will include TV commercials in the Twin Cities that will show Duluth post flood, with the message being Duluth is still here, nothing has changed, it's as beautiful as ever. That campaign launches on July 5.
But at the same time the city is promoting the pro-tourism message, officials are also still pointing out areas of devastation as they continue to lobby for funding both from state and federal governments and also now from private donors. Duluth Mayor Don Ness and others held a press conference on Monday in front of a home in West Duluth that suffered severe flood damage. The owners can't afford to repair it. The United Way has launched a campaign to raise one million dollars this month to help homeowners like this.
Ness said the message has to be nuanced, that there are localized areas of intense damage, such as with the house used as his backdrop, but in the vast majority of Duluth, the city is safe, there was little or no damage, and it's a heck of a lot cooler than in the Twin Cities right now.
Meanwhile, officials are still focusing on assessing the scale of the damage to private property. Carlton County officials said on Monday the running estimate is now $14.5 million in lost private property value there. That includes 75 homes and 5 businesses that meet FEMA's definition of being destroyed.
One bright spot is that Moose Lake, one of the towns hit hardest by flooding, is going ahead with its Fourth of July parade and fireworks celebration tomorrow.