Matt Driscoll

‘A total joke.’ In the shadow of Mount Rainier, it’s hard to find a fan of the government shutdown

Delta Saterdal scoops ice into a tall glass at the Elbe Bar and Grill. In front of her, a collection of regulars nurse drinks. College football plays on the two TVs — no one is really watching — and beer cans adorned with tinsel decorate a small Christmas tree near the window.

Politics, Saterdal says, isn’t something she has any interest in talking about.

“I stay out of it,” Saterdal tells me matter-of-factly before hurrying back to pour another round for a man in lumberjack suspenders and another wearing a camouflage hat.

“As a bartender, you don’t talk about politics,” she warns.

It’s a common refrain here, in a town in the shadow of Mount Rainier, far-removed from the other Washington.

Still, while political views run the spectrum — and the reluctance to even talk about the subject extends far beyond the Elbe Bar and Grill — most remain resolute on one main point:

The government shutdown — which in addition to bringing much of the federal government to a standstill has also closed the road to Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park — hurts, badly.

Now entering its second week, the impasse — over President Donald Trump’s demand for funds to construct a wall along the border with Mexico — risks threatening the livelihood of a valley deeply dependent on the tourism dollars the national park brings in, they explain.

“It sucks. It definitely sucks,” Saterdal says. Business is down, and a number of unsuspecting travelers who have made the trip recently have been disappointed by what they’ve found, she tells me.

“Money wise, for the bar and the employees who work here, it makes a difference,” Saterdal says.

“Every couple bucks counts.”

While much of the media coverage of the ongoing government shutdown has understandably focused on the impact the budget dispute has on thousands of federal employees, small business owners in places like Elbe and Ashford feel like the toll it’s taking on them isn’t being appreciated.

Examples of this toll aren’t hard to find. Travel up State Route 706 toward the gates of Mount Rainier National Park and you’ll arrive at the Ashford General Store, across the street from a small post office.

There, 61-year-old owner Annette Oh — who, for the last five years, has operated the small store that sells everything from food to automotive supplies — says the impact of the government shutdown has been immediate.

Her business is particularly reliant on travelers coming and going from the park, Oh says. The previous Saturday was uncharacteristically slow. Sales were down roughly $1,000, she says.

“Today, too. It’s supposed to be a busy day. It’s not,” Oh says. “My weekend is very important. I am very afraid. Because I want to run the business.”

Inside Whittaker Mountaineering, manager Rebecca Brooks doesn’t sound quite as concerned — at least not yet — but she also says the financial impact of the shutdown is being felt.

The well-known store and rental shop — with six year-round employees — offers travelers things like snowshoes, tire chains and cross country skis. Brooks describes Paradise and the outdoor activities it offers — which are now unavailable to visitors — as “the whole point and the main attraction of coming out here.”

As an example, Brooks says that, typically, Whittaker Mountaineering’s fleet of snowshoes — more than 80 pairs — would by rented out by noon.

“Now, we’re renting a handful a day,” she says.

“It’s definitely hit us really hard. We’ve had to already pull back on staff hours,” Brooks explains, adding that the timing of this shutdown and partial park closure – over the holiday break – is making things worse.

“We’re really adjusting everything, so it’s starting to trickle down to our vendors,” Brooks says.

For Meilee Anderson, a marketing consultant for the tourism nonprofit Visit Rainier, coping with the government shutdown and partial park closure has presented a challenge.

She says she’s spent much of her time battling misconceptions — the park is only partially closed, she makes a point of saying several times — while trying to inform potential visitors of the many activities still available to them in the area. That includes access to Longmire inside the park, to lower elevation hikes outside the park and skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing at Crystal Mountain Resort.

“You can still feel like you’re getting a Rainier experience outside of the park,” Anderson assures.

At the same time, even Anderson — whose job is to sell the area — acknowledges the difficulties presented by the partial closure at Mount Rainier National Park. Visit Rainier’s website traffic dropped 4 percent when the government shutdown hit, she says, and she continues to field emails and social media inquiries from concerned visitors.

“Mount Rainier National Park is the number one demand generator in that area,” Anderson says. “I hope the shutdown is resolved soon. I would hate to think of what a summer would be like without it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by lodge and cabin owners within a stone’s throw of the gates to Rainier.

Joe Piotrowski and Bob Chirum have owned and operated Stone Creek Lodge, and its 10 cabins, since 2015. They moved here from Georgia, viewing it as both a “life-long dream” and “a pre-retirement business opportunity.”

Chirum is also the current vice president and incoming president of the Mount Rainier Visitor Association. He says the concerns he has, and the impact his business has felt from the partial park closure, are shared throughout the area.

For December, Stone Creek Lodge’s reservations are down roughly 25 percent compared to 2017, a drop that Chirum says could be due to the relatively late snowfall this year.

However, looking forward to January, total reservations are currently down 53 percent — a reality Chirum suspects is largely due to the government shutdown and partial park closure.

And if the shutdown stretches on — through Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day and even into the spring — it only stands to make matters more dire.

“All the National Park employees, they’re still going to be paid at the end of the day for not working. It’s the small business owners, up and down the valley here — we’re not going to have an opportunity to recoup those losses,” Chirum says.

The conversation, around a small table inside an empty cabin, reflects a wider sentiment throughout the area.

Here — just like every other corner of Ashford and Elbe — political views differ, but opinions on the shutdown don’t seem to.

“I’m OK if a budget can’t be met, to negotiate and have a short-term shutdown. But this shutdown is just completely uncalled for,” Piotrowski says. “I’m always supportive of any president who steps in, but as time goes on you kind of see where they’re really headed, and at this point right now, I think I’m not too happy with the way things are going.”

“The whole situation is a total joke,” he adds.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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