Duluth tourism tries to recover after flood

Lisa Barrett
Lisa Barrett holds her daughter Kyah Barrett and talks to her about ships that are passing under the Aerial Lift Bridge Wednesday afternoon in Duluth, Minn. Barrett and her daughter were visiting from Georgia.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

A week after floodwaters swept through Duluth, businesses are taking stock of their losses and hoping for a revival of the area's main economic engine — tourism.

Business owners worry that images of damaged roads, flooded buildings and devastated homes will make visitors think twice before heading toward the area.

Brian Daugherty wants you to know one thing: "We don't want this to be our Gulf Coast disaster. We want to let people know that we are ready for 'em and looking forward to seeing 'em."

Really, really looking forward to it, in fact. Daugherty is the head of Grandma's Restaurant Company, which runs the landmark bar and grill in Canal Park.

Another Grandma's restaurant, near the Miller Hill Mall, was inundated and closed after record flooding hit Duluth last week. But the impact even extended to the Canal Park location, which Daugherty said was not affected by the flood.

"It was incredible slow, obviously, Wednesday, and then that continued Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Daugherty said. "We saw sales compared to last year down as far as 30 percent."

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Hotel representatives at a meeting of the Visit Duluth promotional organization Wednesday reported check-ins were down by as much as 50 percent last weekend, including hundreds of reservations that canceled when a soccer tournament was called off.

Even the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development found a statistical blip, according to DEED commissioner Mark Phillips.

Maggie Sklin
Maggie Sklin uses a rock as a slide Wednesday afternoon in Canal Park in Duluth, Minn. Sklin and her family were visiting from Missouri and decided to make the trip to Duluth even after hearing about the damage inflicted by last week's heavy rains.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"Our unemployment for this area took a real minor uptick this last Monday," Phillips said.

He says he is unsure why unemployment appeared slightly higher. It partly may be related to paper and gypsum plants shut down temporarily by high water in Cloquet, he said.

Phillips said analysts from his department would be tracking the potential effects to see if they were flood-related. DEED also has a survey in the field to gauge the flood's effects on business directly.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he knows the effect is serious, with the flood at the height of the tourist season.

"Every weekend in Duluth in the summertime is critical," Ness said. "These are the weeks and the weekends that sustain local businesses throughout the entire year."

That leaves the Duluth and the North Shore with a dilemma: how to detail the flood's disaster and get help rebuilding roads and sewers, parks and trails, without scaring away tourism.

"Our message is very clear: Duluth is open for business. Down on the waterfront, everything is safe and in place."

"It's actually a major problem for us, is that people see the damage and they see the collapsed roads, and they think that it's unsafe to be up in Duluth," Ness said.

"Our message is very clear: Duluth is open for business. Down on the waterfront, everything is safe and in place."

The same can be heard up the road in Two Harbors, where Darrin Young manages Superior Shores Resort.

Young says dozens of guests called last week, fearing for their vacation plans. He said it was easy to get the impression from television and by the pictures in the newspaper that tourists would need wading boots.

"I think with everyone's images of Katrina in their mind, they thought we were just completely inundated with water, where we just never missed a beat," Young said. "We were open all night. We opened the following morning for breakfast."

But there was also some 'gawker factor' Young said. A few of the cancellations were filled by people who wanted to see how the North Shore looked after the record-breaking storm.

Down the road in Duluth, there is sign of that as tourists filter back to the waterfront on Canal Park.

John and Cate Dugan of Minneapolis were strolling along the shore of Lake Superior with their daughter, Anna, Wednesday. They're staying for the week in a cabin in Wisconsin and wondered what Duluth was like after the storm.

John and Cate Dugan
John and Cate Dugan of Minneapolis strolled through Duluth's Canal Park with their daughter, Anna, on Wednesday, June 26, 2012, despite worries over flood's effect on the city. They said they couldn't tell anything had happened by the looks of the lake shore.
MPR photo/Tim Nelson

"We just kind of came here on a whim. We knew that the floods were bad, that the damage was bad," John Dugan said. "But it looks beautiful here now. So I'm not sure how terrible it was. Yeah. You wouldn't be able to tell."

That's the reaction tourism businesses want visitors to have. They hope the weather — perhaps cooler than the oppressive heat predicted for around the rest of the state — will bring back some of the tourists who were driven away.