Matt Driscoll

Frustration is mounting outside the gates of Mount Rainier as Trump’s shutdown drags on

Business effects near Mt. Rainier caused by the federal shutdown

Hundreds have been unable to visit the snow play area this year at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park due to the federal shutdown. The Nisqually entrance near Ashford was reopened on Jan. 13, 2019, but snow play areas remain closed.
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Hundreds have been unable to visit the snow play area this year at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park due to the federal shutdown. The Nisqually entrance near Ashford was reopened on Jan. 13, 2019, but snow play areas remain closed.

Many of the numbers are well known and well publicized.

Some 800,000 federal workers are being impacted by the ongoing partial government shutdown. In Washington, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, 13,000 are either furloughed or working without pay. On Friday, they’ll miss yet another paycheck.

The shutdown — now the longest in U.S. history — has entered its fifth week. Barring a miraculous and unforeseen resolution, by the time you read this in print, it will be in its 33rd day … and counting.

Of course, President Donald Trump — at least at press time — was continuing to demand $5.7 billion to fund a border wall with Mexico.

For local business owners near Mount Rainier National Park, the ongoing impact of the shutdown is harder to numerically quantify, but it is becoming increasingly frustrating.

“They want me to pay my taxes, but they don’t want to open our park,” said Phil Freeman, who, along with his wife, has owned the Copper Creek Inn and Restaurant for more than 15 years.

“It’s outrageous. … It’s really got to stop.”

How many dollars have Freeman, his employees and others lost because access to Mountain Rainier National Park is limited, with the road to Paradise closed?

How many visitors or families have decided against making a trip to the park, which serves as the rural area’s economic engine?

How many meals at local restaurants haven’t been served, and how many tips have been lost?

No one knows for certain, though that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

While this week has finally brought at least a glimmer of hope that a compromise might be on the horizon, The Wall remains the major sticking point.

For many small business owners caught in the middle of the unfortunate squabble, what remains clear is that — despite hard, precise numbers — the shutdown is hurting their bottom line, and that means tensions near the mountain are rising.

In late December, I made the long drive out to Elbe and Ashford to get a sense of what local business owners like Freeman were feeling. At the time, most were predicting financial hardship if the shutdown — which was then in its relative infancy — continued, though many were expecting it to be over soon.

Unfortunately, the latter proved overly optimistic.

On Tuesday, I checked in with a number of the folks I first spoke with three weeks ago. The lodge owners and restauranteurs who depend on an open Mount Rainier National Park to make a living — and who won’t be receiving back pay when the government reopens — deserve to be remembered, especially as the shutdown drags on.

While I didn’t include his perspective in my first column, back in December Freeman told me that if the shutdown continued, he’d likely be forced to cut staff hours. He wasn’t sure.

Three weeks later, he told me that’s precisely what has happened, saying he’s now down to “a bare minimum.”

The Copper Creek Inn employs 23 people, Freeman told me, and its restaurant and cabins stay open year round. To put the staff reduction into perspective, Freeman said he’s been forced to reduce the number of employees working the restaurant from the four to six who typically would be working this time of year to just two.

Freeman said maintenance staff hours also have been significantly reduced.

“Copper Creek made a decision to stay open and just tough it out if we could, and so far we are continuing to stay open,” Freeman said. “I’m not the only business that’s hurting.”

Closer to the gates of Mount Rainier National Park, Joe Piotrowski and Bob Chirum back up that assessment. They have owned the Stone Creek Lodge and its 10 cabins since 2015.

While Piotrowski and Chirum said they can’t be certain exactly how much impact the shutdown is having, it’s clearly not helping.

The number of families is down, and “the phones aren’t ringing,” as Piotrowski put it.

“It’s horrible, obviously for everyone up here. It’s making an impact,” Piotrowski said. “We’re not reinvesting back into the property right now, and that’s disappointing for us. We’re not able to put any money back into the business like we want to.”

Chirum, who also serves as president of the Mount Rainier Visitor Association, said he’s been encouraged by the support of visitors he describes as regulars. At Stone Creek, they’ve also started referring travelers to local attractions outside the national park, like the Mount Tahoma Trails, which has helped.

Meilee Anderson, a marketing consultant for the tourism nonprofit Visit Rainier, echoed some of those sentiments. Anderson said traffic to the Visit Rainier website is down 11 percent over the same period last year and that local business owners are “longing for normal operations to resume.” She added that some are using creative ways to mitigate the impact of the shutdown, including by offering incentives to visit.

Anderson also said that the partial access to the park, including the ability for travelers to still reach Longmire, is a silver lining in an otherwise crummy situation.

Still, Chirum said, it’s noticeably slower than it usually is this time of year and businesses throughout the area are increasingly concerned about the future.

“It’s an extremely frustrating situation,” said Chirum, adding that he’s not overly optimistic that the shutdown will end any time soon.

In a column built on uncertainties, perhaps it’s only fitting to end on what might be one of the biggest.

In an area that voted in favor of Trump during the 2016 election — by a significant margin — how many opinions of the president have been changed because of his stubborn resistance to reopen the government until his pet project and divisive campaign promise gets funded?

“I’m thoroughly disgusted with the whole thing. I just think it’s ridiculous,” said Piotrowski, who previously described himself as a Trump supporter.

“This is just an ego thing, that’s all this is. … It’s a total ego.”

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.