Federal Government shutdown continues to hurt local economy
Page News and Courier The Shenandoah Valley-Herald The Warren Sentinel
The day after Dan Herney discovered he needn't bother showing up for work, the Shenandoah National Park employee showed up anyway.
It's a little after 1 p.m. last Wednesday. Herney stands on the front lawn of the national park's headquarters on Route 211, just east of Luray, an abandoned camp chair behind him and a sign in each hand.
“Open our parks,” reads one sign.
“We want to work,” reads the other.
When a Ford pickup passes by, the driver lays a hand on the horn and extends a thumbs-up out the window. The sole picketer raises the signs high above his head, like a boxer displaying his championship belt.
“There's a lot of uncertainty,” Herney says, referencing the federal government shutdown that began last Tuesday.
The last time the federal government ceased operations was almost 18 years ago, in fiscal 1996. That 26-day shutdown cost U.S. taxpayers $1.4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
This one could cost far more, Herney fears.
There's no good time for a shutdown, says the 15-year maintenance worker, but one couldn't come at a worse time in the Shenandoah Valley.
October is the park's peak season, when nearly a quarter of its annual visitors turn out to glimpse fall foliage on the mountain. According to the National Park Trust, October visitors to Shenandoah National Park infuse about $10 million each year in gateway communities, which span from Front Royal to Charlottesville.
“A prolonged shutdown will have huge affects,” says Herney. “Hopefully it will all be over tomorrow.”
Well, it wasn't.
By 10 a.m. last Thursday, the picketers at the park's headquarters had tripled. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) plans to picket each day of the shutdown.
“We need Congress to do what they were elected to do,” says AFGE Local 407 President Greg Hall.
“We're at the mercy of Congress,” adds Greg's wife, Tiffany, who also works for the National Park Service. “Dual income to no income is a scary thing.”
Of the Shenandoah National Park's 240 employees, 200 are furloughed. Those that remain working are needed to protect and maintain the park's nearly 200,000 acres.
While the House of Representatives on Saturday passed legislation to provide backpay to about 800,000 furloughed federal workers, there's no pay guarantee. The House bill is currently pending before the U.S. Senate.
Another 1.3 million federal workers remain at work due to the nature of their jobs, but they aren't collecting paychecks during the shutdown.
Even if backpay is granted to furloughed workers, a prolonged shutdown means a stalled payday, said Solim Garcia. The Shenandoah National Park worker and his wife, Liz, who is also employed by the park, worry about the toll the shutdown could take on them and families like them, in which both spouses are furloughed employees.
“It's stressful,” Solim says, noting that he and his wife are raising a 5- and 2-year-old.
On Friday — the fourth day of the shutdown — Solim's son turned 6.
At 11 a.m. last Friday, the father of two stands with a group of 10 picketers at the park's headquarters, swatting at gnats as he waves a sign at passing vehicles. It's unseasonably hot and humid, the sun is bright and the bugs are out, but the group spends a few hours sharing messages scribbled in magic marker. The furloughed employees celebrate each honk and wave as if it's a small victory.
At 6 p.m. that same day, workers employed through the park's concessioner take their turn at the signs, at the Front Royal entrance to Shenandoah National Park.
When the entrances to the park were closed and locked, says Kevin Boyd, so were the park's lodges, waysides and restaurants, at which contracted workers are employed. Those workers, Boyd continued, are perhaps one of the shutdown's most brutal casualties, as they are considered “temporarily laid off” as opposed to furloughed.
Delaware North Cos. Parks and Resorts temporarily let 267 Luray-based employees go last Tuesday. The company operates Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge and Lewis Mountain Cabins in Shenandoah National Park.
Boyd, who works as a retail manager at the Elk Wallow Wayside between Luray and Front Royal, joined about 30 contracted employees and supporters during Friday's protest.
“We're not government employees; there's no way that we're going to get backpay,” says Boyd, noting that Delaware North employees were nearing the end of this year's season, which generally runs from April through November. “A lot of us depend on the extra money we earn during the peak season through overtime and extra tips. It's the last chance for us to put away a little bit in savings to get us through the winter. The cost [of the shutdown] is more than people think.”
The total price tag?
About $1.6 billion a week, according to economic consulting firm IHS Global Insight. Break that down further, and the total cost of the federal shutdown is about $300 million a day, or $12.5 million an hour.
Add in non-federal casualties of the shutdown, and the price climbs higher.
Perhaps the biggest blow for communities like Page County that neighbor national parks is the potential for a substantial visitor drop off, said John Robbins, president of the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce.
When the government shutdown went into effect last Tuesday, about 90 evicted park guests stopped by the local chamber looking for alternative lodging and vacation plans, according to Robbins. Two of the evicted lodgers were "weddingmooners," who had been looking forward to an Oct. 5 wedding day at Skyland Resort. The couple was able to instead hold their nuptials at the Pavilion at Shenandoah Woods in Stanley.
While the park closure initially bolstered local business, said Robbins, the fallout from the shutdown is slowly being felt throughout the county.
Luray Copy Service, for instance, suffered a loss when its client, Delaware North Cos. suspended its business, according to Robbins. A local cabin owner lost a two-week reservation made by a group of hikers.
And while some businesses like Luray's Gathering Grounds are reporting a hike in customers (up 15 percent since last week), others, like Appalachian Outdoors Adventures, are reporting a loss (business at the Luray outfitters decreased by 25 percent due to the shutdown, according to Robbins).
“There's still a lot of fall to be seen in Page County, and we're trying hard to keep the tourists coming,” said Robbins. “Long term, this will have extremely serious consequences.”
Last month, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that tourist spending in Virginia hit a new high in 2012. Virginia visitors generated $21.2 billion in revenue last year, up 4 percent from the previous year.
Visitors to Page County generated $61.3 million in 2012, up 2.2 percent (or $1.3 million) from 2011. Since 2009, tourist spending in Page has risen by more than 9 percent.
Visitors to the nation's parks in 2011 spent more than $30 billion in surrounding communities, according to the most recent numbers released in a National Park Service study. Communities surrounding
Shenandoah National Park, including Page County, saw an economic spillover of $73.9 million, supporting 1,050 jobs.
More than 1.2 million people visited Shenandoah National Park in 2011.