Bar Harbor businesses stay busy despite Acadia National Park closure, but hotels suffer

A sign at the Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor offers a discount to Acadia National Park employees who have been furloughed because of the federal government shutdown.
A sign at the Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor offers a discount to Acadia National Park employees who have been furloughed because of the federal government shutdown. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 11, 2013, at 6 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 12, 2013, at 1:08 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Eleven days into the closure of Acadia National Park, the local business community is becoming more anxious about what sort of impact a longer-term federal government shutdown might have on the area’s tourism industry.

According to a national group that advocates for national parks and their employees, the closure of the federal parks through Oct. 10 resulted in an estimated $5.2 million reduction in spending in the Bar Harbor region.

The study also criticizes Congress for shutting down the national parks, which reportedly generate 15 times as much revenue in surrounding communities as is spent on the parks by the federal government.

In Bar Harbor, the busy fall cruise ship season has helped to offset reduced tourism business caused by the closure of Acadia.

So far none of the 41 cruise ship visits scheduled for October has been canceled. The town’s cruise ship season brings hundreds of thousands of passengers and millions of dollars to Mount Desert Island every summer and fall before it winds down around late October.

Local business officials said this week that with the closure of the park, cruise ship passengers have been spending more time in downtown Bar Harbor, which has helped some shops and restaurants. But at the same time, some local hotels have been getting cancellations and customers have been cutting their trips short, they have said.

“It’s hard right now to put a number on what the [economic] loss is,” Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday. “We just don’t know how big it is yet.”

Fogg said that if he had been asked a year ago what would happen if the park were closed during the peak fall tourism season, he would have predicted that the immediate impact on local tourism would have been more severe than it has been so far.

But Fogg quickly added that local shops, restaurants and hotels will be far better off in the long term with the federal government functioning and the park open. If the park were to be closed in April, he said hypothetically, when many seasonal businesses gear up for the summer, the impact would be severe.

“So far, it hasn’t been the end of the world,” Fogg said. But trying to attract millions of visitors each year without the park as the main attraction, he added, “is not sustainable.”

Eben Salvatore, local director of operations for Ocean Properties Ltd., said this week that though occupancy rates are down at its local hotels, other businesses have been busy.

Because bus tours of the park have been unavailable, cruise ship passengers have been spending more time at downtown shops and making more reservations for the company’s whale watching, kayaking and nature boat cruises, he said.

“On some days there were as many as 2,000 people that normally would have boarded a bus for a park tour, but instead were free to take a boat ride or walk around town,” Salvatore said.

Acadia Corp., a private company in Bar Harbor that has been the park’s licensed retail concessions contractor for the past several decades, has been forced to close the Jordan Pond House restaurant and three gift shops that it operates in Acadia, though its shops in downtown Bar Harbor have remained open.

David Woodside, president of Acadia Corp., said recently that the company employs about 200 people every summer and that of those about 120 work at the park sites or in support roles of the firm’s park operations. Attempts to contact Woodside Friday to find out how those employees have been affected by the park closure were unsuccessful.

On Thursday, an organization of former National Park Service employees released a statement that claims that since the shutdown went into effect on Oct. 1, more than 7 million visitors have been kept out of national parks nationwide and more than $750 million in visitor spending in surrounding communities has not materialized.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees wrote in the statement that the impact of the park system’s closure has had “huge repercussions for the economies of gateway communities and entire states that depend on national park tourism.” The estimates are based on visitation and spending figures from October 2012.

For Acadia, the group estimated, the shutdown has resulted in nearly 68,500 fewer visits in the first 10 days of the shutdown and an absence of $5.2 million in visitor spending. More than 3,000 jobs in the Mount Desert Island area are at stake as a result of the shutdown, the group added.

“These figures are mind-boggling and they only begin to capture the full economic shock of locking up the crown jewels of America — our national parks,” Maureen Finnerty, chairwoman of the coalition and former superintendent of Everglades and Olympic national parks, said in the statement. “And if Congress continues to hold our national parks hostage, these communities will soon be reeling from what is in many cases the main driver of their economies.”

Joan Anzelmo, spokesperson for the coalition, said Friday that the economic impact of closing the park system is far greater than it would be to spend money to keep the parks open. She said that Congress allocates a little more than $2 billion to the National Park Service each year and that in return park visitors spend about $30 billion nationwide.

“You get that incredible return on the dollar,” Anzelmo said. Congress should get its act together, she added, and refrain from making national parks, their visitors and their employees “pawns in their partisan game.”

Stuart West, chief ranger for Acadia, is the top park administrator who has not been furloughed and one of only about 15 out of 200-plus park employees who remain on duty. He said Friday that he does not have financial information about how much revenue Acadia itself would be taking in from park passes and franchise fees if it were open, or how much money the park would have spent in operating costs the past 10 days if it had not been closed.

West said that Acadia averages about 285,000 visitors each October, out of more than 2 million visitors that it typically gets each year. He said that he and other rangers still working have estimated that, while the park has been shut down, there have been roughly 500 cars parked along state and local roads each day where people have hiked into the park despite the shutdown.

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