Coping with the government shutdown in a town dependent on tourism
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.
"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.
"How do you come up for a contingency plan for something like this? But it's OK, we're working with guests to try to mitigate the damage this is doing to their vacations," Schear said. "We would just inundate them with (suggestions), so most of them would come back and just be as happy as can be. We've had some of the most pleasant people this week."
The hotel undergoes a rigorous deep cleaning and maintenance regimen each winter, which means most employees are able to stay on year-round rather than working seasonally. As the guest list thins, Schear said the staff will begin several of those projects early to keep them busy.
Business cut in half
At the Zion Canyon Market, a grocery store a stone's throw from the park gate, manager Lamar Gubler has spent the week sympathizing with tourists from all over the world who had come to make the "grand circle" through Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Grand Canyon National Parks.
As the tour groups have turned back or cancelled, business has suffered.
"We rely on it here probably more than most," Gubler said. "Some of the businesses downtown, they do have some local customers, but we're almost strictly campers or tourists here. Our business is less than half what it was five days ago."
Zion Canyon Market had been counting on at least another month of busy travellers before business began to decline for the winter, but even if the shutdown is resolved in the next few days, Gubler worries the damage has already been done.
"So many people have changed their plans, they're not coming up," Gubler said. "If they open the park back up in the middle of next week, which is about the soonest they could do it, it will take at least a week before we see any improvement. Where we only have so much time left in the season, it's kind of ruined the rest of this season."
Like many businesses in town, the grocery store cuts employee hours each winter as traffic dwindles. Those cuts will likely happen early this year, and the store's 10 employees saw the first reductions to their schedules on Sunday, Gubler said.
"I kept them in (this week) not really knowing what kind of effect it would have," Gubler said. "We'll move to our winter mode quicker."
Despite the lost month of business, Gubler hopes the store will rebound in the spring. In the meantime, he hopes the "political games" being waged by both parties will cease before more damage is done to American workers like the Zion Canyon Market employees.
"Congress is driven so much by ego and power, and lack of concern for ordinary people, and that goes for both parties," Gubler said. "That's just my opinion, but I think I'm right."
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