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Visitors centers, attractions and campgrounds on the Blue Ridge Parkway closed on Tuesday due to the federal government shutdown, and will remain closed until the issues are resolved.
The parkway is one of the 401 national parks that have been affected by the government shutdown. All visitor facilities including all historic sites, park hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, picnic areas and restrooms — everything except the road itself — are closed.
The 469-mile national park, which runs through the Twin Counties, will remain open for traffic, according to Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett. The National Park Service had ordered the closing of the road in the event that Congress could not reach a resolution by 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday. However, the park service decided to keep the road open on Monday, but close the attractions.
Spots affected by the shutdown include the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, along with popular attractions like Mabry Mill and Peaks of Otter Lodge, including private businesses operating on the federal property, like the restaurant at Mabry Mill.
Park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and lodges were given until 6 p.m. Thursday to make travel arrangements and leave the park, said Stinnett in a news release. In addition, all park programs and special events have been canceled.
At the parkway alone, 195 National Park Service employees are on furlough because of the shutdown and approximately 200 concession employees are similarly affected. Forty-three National Park Service employees are still on duty to provide necessary law enforcement, security and emergency services.
Had the road been closed, it would have come at a bad time for tourism-related businesses along the parkway, which rely on the heavy traffic of visitors — an estimated 2 million — who come to look at the spectacular colors of the fall foliage. That season hits its peak this month.
This is the second hit the Blue Ridge Parkway has taken this year. Federal budget cuts earlier this year forced several visitor’s centers, campgrounds and picnic areas to shut their doors permanently.
Coping with the shutdown
After receiving the order to cease operations, those who rely on the parkway look for ways to cope while the government sorts things out.
The Blue Ridge Music Center, a major attraction for old-time and bluegrass lovers who come to this area, was one of the attractions forced to shut down this week. The entrance to the parkway hot-spot at milemarker 213 was desolate on Tuesday afternoon. A road barricade stretched across the blacktop, sporting a piece of paper with a copy of the announcement posted that morning by the National Park Service.
But even though their venue is not accessible, the furloughed staff is taking the music wherever they can in the meantime.
As the music center moves into its annual Fall Heritage Series, program manager Erynn Marshall confirmed that the Oct. 6 “Mandolins of the Blue Ridge” show will be moved to Chestnut Creek School of the Arts (CCSA) in downtown Galax.
“We are grateful for CCSA’s generous support of our non-profit, music heritage programs,” she said in a press release.
In a phone call to The Gazette, Marshall noted that she is currently seeking a venue for the center’s “Tribute to Banjoist Wade Ward” session set for Oct. 13, in case the shutdown is still in effect.
Reservations for the Oct. 6 show are required because seating is limited at the school. Marshall requests that all reservation inquiries be called in to (276) 237-6866.
Other local businesses are struggling to figure out the next step while they wait for further action from Congress.
The shutdown is having a more profound effect on attractions like Mabry Mill, which employs 44 people, for example. Peaks of Otter has 72 employees.
Annetta Stanley, an employee of the Mabry Mill Diner, was one of the workers ordered to go home on Tuesday. With the loss of her income for an indefinite period of time, she is wondering how she is going to make it.
“Federal employees who have been laid off may be able to collect back pay from the government... but what about me? What about the other 43 people... what about [diner owner] Karen Radcliff’s lost revenue? Where is that coming from?” she asked, frustrated with the situation.
Though the diner is privately owned, it was ordered to close because it is on federal property.
With the promise of a heavier profit due to the rising number of tourists who visit the diner in October, Stanley says she was counting on the money that she would have made in tips. “I can count on making between $80 and $100 in tips a day this time of year, because so many of our customers will wait up to two and a half hours for a table.
“[Some] have been coming here for 40 years, just to get buckwheat pancakes and country ham. It’s a shame all the way around.”
Cathy Bowman, owner and photographer of ShutterShooters Photography, hasn’t felt any impact from the shutdown yet, but she sees a possibility of it hurting her business in the future.
In an e-mail to The Gazette, she explained how many of her clients request sessions at locations that are now out of commission, such as Mabry Mill. “I know that the road and areas that can’t be closed off are still open, but I have yet to do a set of pictures where it wasn’t planned around lunch or breakfast [at the venue] and some shopping,” she said.
Not only is she concerned for her own business, but she has also shared frustrations with some of her photographer friends, who worry about the natural hotspots that are more frequently requested by their clientele. “If the parks are closed, you can’t get pictures there, and people will delay their sessions or just not make them altogether, which puts a hurt on a photographer’s income,” she said.
Not everyone sees the shutdown negatively.
Privately-owned campgrounds, cabins and lodges stand to reap the benefits of their government-operated competition’s closure.
An example of this is Fancy Gap KOA campground, owned and operated by the Manning family. Although they are also concerned about what effect this will have on the economy, they kept themselves busy by keeping their doors open on Tuesday.
“With the federal campgrounds closed, it should send more campers our way. We’re looking at the silver lining,” said Benjamin Manning.
Nationwide, the shutdown has furloughed more than 20,000 park service employees. Approximately 3,000 employees remain on duty to ensure essential health, safety, and security functions at parks and facilities. About 12,000 park concessions employees are also affected.
Because it will not be maintained, the National Park Service website will be down for the duration of the shutdown. NPS.gov has more than 750,000 pages and 91 million unique visitors each year.
The Blue Ridge Parkway hosts approximately 70,000 visitors on average each day in October; nationally, more than 715,000 visitors a day frequent the National Park System.
Nationwide, the NPS stands to lose approximately $450,000 per day in lost revenue from fees collected at entry stations and fees paid for in-park activities such as cave tours, boat rides and camping.
Gateway communities across the country — like Galax and Fancy Gap — see about $76 million total per day in total sales from visitor spending that is lost during a government shutdown.
Statewide, there are a total of 172,000 federal employees. it was not clear on Tuesday how many would be furloughed during the government shutdown, as some workers in “essential” government services will continue working.
Veterans Affairs centers will continue to operate and process claims, and federal courts will proceed, according to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy of the Western District office in Roanoke, which serves the Twin County region, said only employees working on criminal cases will be immune to the furlough. Work on civil cases and other matters would be suspended.