Zion shutdown leaves streets, motels of So. Utah town empty
Springdale • A constellation of red hotel vacancy lights twinkled Tuesday night in Springdale, flashing blindly at empty streets and tourists who never materialized after the federal government shutdown.
Sitting immediately outside Zion National Park, Springdale's tourist economy normally thrives through the beginning of November. But after political stalemate led to a shutdown of the federal government Oct. 1, the visitors began drying up.
"It was like someone turned off a faucet," said Kim Bingham, an employee at the outdoor supply shop Zion Outfitter.
Bingham's only company in the shop Wednesday was row after row of unused hiking shoes and a cluster of rider-less bicycles. The shop normally bustles in early October a time Bingham described as the season's last "hurrah" during fall break but none of the trickle of bus tourists wandered in Wednesday morning after being turned away at the park's chain-locked gate.
Bingham said she knows some people have ventured into the park, opting to try to avoid the rangers who are patrolling to keeping tourists out. She said people who get caught have their name and photograph taken by the rangers, though more severe penalties are yet to be determined. Bingham also had a "souvenir" under her desk: an orange sticker threatening to tow the car of a friend who parked in the Zion lot.
Zion Outfitter will likely pull through the shutdown, thanks to a good summer, Bingham said, but she added that the financial losses were reverberating throughout the community.
"It's not ever slow like this, even in January when we're pretty much dead."
Down the street, Zion Park Motel owner Alma Young had only eight of her 23 rooms filled Tuesday night. Between Oct. 1 and Wednesday morning, she had 43 cancellations, more than 30 of which happened this week.
While Young was describing the turmoil the shutdown was causing, the phone rang and employee Sharon Felton answered. When the call ended, Felton stood and announced the 44th cancelation, holding up a small piece of paper with the tally of losses.
Young and her family have run the motel which occupies one of the most central locations in Springdale since 1972. She couldn't recall any other time when business was so bad at this time of year and added that the situation is particularly difficult because it trickles down to all of her employees.
"It snowballs," she said, "because housekeepers don't have enough rooms to clean."
Despite the empty streets and vacant hotel rooms, some tourists Wednesday were still trying to make the most of their visit to the American West. Barry and Donna Rice of Chicago were members of a bus tour of the region and showed up at locked gates of Zion National Park late in the morning. They shuffled slowly across the bridge leading into the park with the rest of their group, but had to settle for pictures of themselves standing in front a large "Do Not Enter" sign.
"It's like a shot in the head with a sledgehammer," Barry Rice said of being turned away.
As the tourists returned to their bus and headed for a state park, Winnie Lemyre of New Jersey expressed hope that the state governors would step in and open the parks. For Lemyre, however, even that solution wouldn't reverse what turned out to the disappointment of a lifetime.
"All my life I've wanted to come, and now I have," she said as she wistfully gazed up as the red cliffs behind the locked gate.
To help visitors who come to Springdale during the shutdown, the IMAX theater which shows both educational and mainstream films set up an information booth in lobby. Pamphlets and handouts were spread across a table Wednesday, pointing visitors to state parks and hiking trails that remain open. Theater host Brandon Robinson said response to the booth has been positive, with many visitors coming in to pick up information.
The shutdown also has had a curious impact on the theater; Robinson said that it actually is doing more business than usual, presumably because the documentary films it shows are now the only way to see the park. According to Robinson, the theater scheduled five additional daily film screenings and employees are putting in longer hours. Still, Robinson who works a second job at a hard-hit shop nearby said the overall impact of the shutdown was negative."
"It sucks," he added.
The shutdown also has had unanticipated positive impacts on other parts of the town. Michael Evenson, who sells art at LaFave Gallery, said Monday and Tuesday were surprisingly busy, which he speculated was a result of people having little else to do in Springdale.
But outside the gallery, the town remained eerily quiet. Tuesday night, Darrell Voss stood outside the lobby of his hotel, looking down the empty street. Voss, who was in town for the Red Bull Rampage mountain-biking competition, said he has been coming to Springdale for years and has never seen it so empty. And like many of the tourists and locals, Voss said he was frustrated that he couldn't actually visit a place that was supposedly owned by the public.
"It's disappointing," he said, "to see public lands not open to the public."