Coping with the government shutdown in a town dependent on tourism

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 3:30 p.m. MDT

Gitte and Peter Wallentin and their sons Tobias and Rasmus browse the Zion Prospector rock shop in Springdale on Oct. 5, 2013. The family came from Denmark to visit Zion National Park, which is closed during the government shutdown.

McKenzie Romero, Deseret News

SPRINGDALE, Washington County — As State route 9 approaches Springdale, a large road sign advises travellers that Zion National Park is closed.

Chuck Proball wants to place another sign next to it: Springdale businesses still open.

For more than a decade, Proball has worked alongside his friends at the Zion Prospector, a rock shop in Springdale specializing in fossils, gems and other treasures that come out of the earth. The town of fewer than 600 people is nestled at the entrance to Zion and is heavily dependant on the tourist traffic that runs through the area year round.

This time of year the area is usually bustling as cars drive in and out of the park, a shuttle carries tourists up to the gate and visitors wander on foot between local shops and eateries.

Zion Prospector enjoyed its biggest sales of the year in September, but that was cut short when the government shutdown closed the park.

"The first four days here it was no problem because there were a lot of people who didn't realize the park was shuttered. Now it's starting to sink in," Proball said. "It was like cutting your head off."

Saturday, what should have been one of the town's busiest weekends, the streets were nearly deserted. Now businesses like Zion Prospector are preparing themselves to cope with the long-term consequences from the premature end of their tourism season.

"This is the time of year, September, October and November, when we get a different type of people than in the middle of the summer … now we get the empty nesters and the older couples, and that's the buying power," said Proball, who predicts the loss in profits will affect the shop's ability to buy rare gems and stones from annual trade shows.

Instead, the shop will remain stocked with things that can be found locally, like the rare Tiffany Stone from Dugway, dendrite crystals from Beaver or honeycomb calcite near the Idaho border.

Over the weekend, Zion Prospector closed a little earlier each day as fewer customers appeared. Those who did come in weren't in the mood to buy any of the high-ticket precious stones anyway, Proball said. They were upset about not making it into Zion.

Looking ahead

"We haven't really sat down and talked about any strategy, I mean, what's the strategy when no one is here?" Proball said. "We're not going to be able to buy as much, that's for sure."

Across the street at the Desert Pearl Inn, General Manager Kimberlee Schear and her staff watched as the countdown to the government shutdown hit zero. Then they got to work.

"We've been giving out all kinds of information, and we've been managing it well. We haven't had as many cancellations as I thought we would," Schear said.

When the park closed, the hotel staff began compiling a long list of other sites and activities still available in the area and proactively contacted guests before they cancelled their trips. On the first day of the closure, a Desert Pearl employee waited at the gate to Zion and handed out fliers to visitors encouraging them to tour other trails and attractions that remained open on state land.

"She got a little bit swamped," Schear chuckled. "She was there a couple of hours."

Nevertheless, the hotel that was booked solid for every weekend in October now has several empty rooms, Schear said.

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