Rainier closure hurts nearby businesses

jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.comOctober 16, 2013 

The federal government shutdown has closed Mount Rainier National Park and shut down the economic engine that generates an estimated $33 million a year and supports 450 jobs.

The impact also is rippling through the gateway communities of Ashford, Elbe and Eatonville. At the park’s Nisqually entrance, closed signs translate into no heads in motel beds, few diners at restaurants and park families not grabbing sub sandwiches after a high school tennis match.

The park has been closed since Oct. 1. About 20 park staff members have been on duty each day since then, but more than 190 are on furlough. The closure also means the 67,000 people who visit in an average October are looking for alternative destinations.

In Elbe on Tuesday, owner Elisa Fruzzetti and daughter Abigail Johnstad were the only people working at the Mt. Rainier Railroad Dining Co. The cook, bartender and another waitress were told not to come to work. At breakfast, Johnstad waited on one table.

“On any sunny day like today, there’s always lots of people coming up for a day trip but no one is coming because the park is closed,” said Fruzzetti as she waved her hand at the empty dining area. “We’ve lost quite a bit (of business).”

Closer to the park on state Route 706, manager Sandy Schmidt had little to do at the Nisqually Lodge front desk. She had just three rooms rented for Tuesday night and had not heard whether they were going to come. The phone had not rung at all. So far this month, 39 reservations have been canceled, Schmidt said, 50 to 75 percent of the motel’s business for the month.

For the next week, Schmidt said she had just three reservations.

“They come up to see the mountain and they can’t, so they don’t stay,” Schmidt said. “It’s hard. The maids can’t work because there are no rooms to clean. It’s hurting the little people.”

This comes after a summer in which sunny skies and warm weather drew the most visitors in a decade.

“It felt like we were finally turning the corner,” said Jana Gardiner, co-owner of Ashford Creek Pottery. “We’ve definitely noticed fewer people coming by.”

Like others, she is frustrated by the political bickering in the nation’s capital.

“There are people up here that work at the park or at restaurants. Those (jobs) are important,” Gardiner said. “They want to know where their next meal is going to come from.”

The National Park Conservation Association estimates gateway communities and businesses are losing $30 million a day nationwide. In Washington, the lost revenue comes to more than $560,000 a day, said Rob Smith, the association’s Northwest regional director.

“Closing national parks is an ineffective way to save money and undermines the economies of many local communities,” he said. “The National Park Service accounts for one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, but can have a huge impact on nearby businesses, tourism and visitor experience.”

At Mount Rainier on Tuesday, Chuck Young, the park’s chief ranger, was at the main gate for an hour and told passengers in nearly a dozen vehicles that the park was closed. In some instances, he offered alternatives for a hike or scenic drive.

Among those driving up to the gate was Paige Davis of Mill Valley, Calif. She had been to the park about 13 years ago to climb the 14,411-foot summit. In the area Tuesday, she wanted to see the mountain again.

“It’s a bummer,” Davis said. “It’s difficult because the government shutdown is affecting this, one of the coolest parts of the government.”

In Eatonville, Kevin Bacher is finding projects around the house and helping family members to keep busy. Normally, as the volunteer and outreach coordinator at the park, he would be at his office at the Administration Building at Longmire.

He’s dealing with the financial reality of the shutdown on a personal level. The paycheck deposited into his back account Tuesday was half its normal amount because it included only pay for the last week of September. He will not get a check on Oct. 29.

“It has been very stressful,” he said. “There is just so much uncertainty.”

While there has been talk of government employees receiving back pay, no definitive plan has been established. In the meantime, Bacher has applied to receive unemployment benefits during the shutdown.

“We’ve put a noose on the family budget,” he said. “With only half the income we normally have, we’ve cut out a lot.”

That means no stops at the Cottage Bakery for a coffee and heading home instead of going to Subway after his 15-year-old son’s tennis match.

Each day Bacher’s 12-year-old son comes home and asks whether there has been any progress in the budget talks in Washington, D.C.

“He asks if we are going to be poor,” Bacher said.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com thenewstribune.com/outdoors jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com

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