Shutdown is mixed bag for tourism industry

State parks shutdown
In this file photo from June 30, 2011, Itasca State Park Manager Matt Snyder talks to Curt Timmerman as he packs up his family to leave the park. All of Minnesota's state parks closed after that day due to the government shutdown, and that's having an impact on Minnesota's tourism industry.
MPR Photos/John Heller

The public rest stop along Cass Lake usually bustles with activity during the summer.

In the city limits of Cass Lake, and one of the only rest stops on Highway 2 between Duluth and the North Dakota border, the facility also serves as the town's visitor center and Chamber of Commerce headquarters.

But these days, concrete barriers and a huge closed sign block the entrance. The closed facility is a sign of the times for Minnesota's tourism industry, projected to lose millions of dollars every week that state government remains shut down.

But gauging the impact on tourism-related businesses depends on who you ask. In Cass Lake, the shutdown is creating both hardship and opportunity.

Among those who see hardship is chamber director Sue Schafroth, whose office is inside the locked facility.

"We have a lot of people that come through here, and they want to see what is in the area that they can do or places they can stay," said Schafroth, who is currently working from home. "They can't come in here anymore. They've been blocked off from getting this information."

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That makes it tough on area businesses who post information inside the chamber's office. With it, many travelers may miss what Cass Lake has to offer.

What's worse is that the only public boat launch in the city is also behind the barricade, Schafroth said. Visitors have to travel several miles up the road to find another free boat launch site. That means less business for local restaurants, bait shops and retail stores.

"I think that tourism all throughout Minnesota is being hurt."

"I think that tourism all throughout Minnesota is being hurt," Schafroth said. "We have such a short tourist season in terms of all the different lakes we have and everything, and to do this now, it's got to be hurting a lot of businesses in a very tough economy to start with."

Before the government shutdown began 12 days ago, state Department of Natural Resources officials projected that Minnesota's tourism industry would lose about $12 million for each week of a shutdown. Now, with most state employees laid off, there's no one around from the DNR or the state tourism office to assess the impact.

A few miles up the road from Cass Lake, officials at the Chippewa National Forest are seeing a very different story. The federally managed forest became a lot busier after Minnesota's 66 state parks shut down July 1, said Kay Getting, Chippewa's public affairs officer.

"We're seeing a large influx of people looking to reorganize their vacation time, so they're looking for available camping spots," she said. "If all of their July plans, and maybe their August plans are thwarted, they're going to be contacting us."

For the Chippewa National Forest, the biggest downside to the state government shutdown is that it's slowing down or halting some projects done jointly with the state, Getting said.

The DNR is one of the National Forest's most active partners, and the two entities work together on projects ranging from lakeshore restoration to tree planting and invasive species control. With all but a handful of conservation officers laid off, it means some of those projects are on hold.

Getting said the silver lining for the Chippewa is that more people are getting exposed to all the national forest has to offer.

Kay Getting
Kay Getting is public affairs officer for the Chippewa National Forest. Getting says the federally owned forest has seen a big influx of visitors since state parks shut down July 1.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"Because we have a wealth of natural resources and natural resource agencies in Minnesota, everybody is struggling for a little bit of identity," she said. "We have an opportunity now to establish our identity, because we have something to compare to that everyone is hearing about in the news."

Observers expect the shutdown will have a very mixed impact on businesses in the state.

Tom Hesse, vice president of government affairs for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses won't be affected at all. Although some will be hurt, other private sector businesses in the recreation and tourism industry may actually benefit as state-run facilities remain closed, he said.

But Hesse said ultimately, it may be hard to measure the true costs of the shutdown.

"How do you know that a drop in sales is due to shutdown versus bad weather, versus the general economy? I think it would be really difficult to pinpoint that any specific drop in activity is due to a government shutdown," he said.

While Minnesota is losing millions from state park camping fees and fishing license sales, the state is also paying another price -- some of the state's closed state parks and forests have been the target of vandalism.