Gettysburg businesses struggle to lure tourists amid federal government shutdown


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GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- The sign outside the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg is loud and clear: "Unlike the government we never shut down here."

It's a message the hotels, restaurants, tour companies and shops in this central Pennsylvania town are struggling to get out as a portion of the visitors who had planned to tour its Civil War battlefields -- now closed as part of the federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1 -- cancel or shorten their trips.

Sightseers are still about, to be sure, touring the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center, which is run by a nonprofit foundation, and taking modified battlefield tours that steer clear of roads owned by the park. But some have called off their plans, at least for now, leaving business owners who had enjoyed a banner summer of festivities marking the 150th anniversary of the famous battle to face vacancies in the heart of fall foliage season.

At the 1863 Inn, a five-story colonial-style hotel in the historic district, flags highlighting the anniversary hang not far from the more recently posted sign. Norma Herring, the general manager, said she had expected to fill 32 of the hotel's 110 rooms over Columbus Day weekend with a military group that was forced to cancel.

"Every day I'm getting cancellations," she said last week. "We were filled for this weekend. Now I have about 42, 45 rooms I have to rent.

"The worst part is people have the misconception that the entire town is shut down, that there's absolutely nothing to do. And that's so far from correct."

Just down the road, Max Felty, who owns Gettysburg Tours, said his business last week received at best half as many customers as it normally would this time of year. A couple days into the shutdown, he laid off two employees who ran shuttles between the visitor center and the Eisenhower National Historic Site, which has been closed.

"It's certainly affecting revenue significantly," he said. "Not only are we not able to offer some of the things we normally do, but people aren't coming. People have the impression right now that Gettysburg as a whole is closed. But it's not."

In the parking lot of his business, where buses are parked, a guide led a cluster of visitors to the edge of a field marked with a National Park Service lawn sign telling them to keep off. Further away, some tourists walked among the monuments anyway.

As the congressional budget impasse draws on, the closure of historic and natural landmarks around the nation is serving as a visible -- and to some, symbolic -- reminder that the U.S. government has been hobbled in much of its work.

Visitors to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park, among other sites, were deeply disappointed when they arrived to find them closed last week.

In some places, towns and states have offered to pay to reopen at least part of certain parks. The Obama administration told the governors of Utah and several other states last week that it would consider allowing states to pay for park operations, according to the National Park Service, and some sites are reopening.

The Corbett administration is focusing its efforts in the shutdown on maintaining health and safety programs, said Jay Pagni, the governor's press secretary.

In Adams County, home to Gettysburg, tourism is the No. 1 industry, supporting about 7,500 jobs, said Carl Whitehill, a spokesman for the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau projects that tourists will spend $750 million here this year.

Tourism in Pennsylvania as a whole is a $40 billion industry and generates an estimated $3.8 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to the Department of Community & Economic Development.

People involved in tourism in Gettysburg have discussed how the shutdown is affecting the various operations. There has been talk of buying advertisements to let others know the town is still open for business, said Rick Beamer, general manager of the Dobbin House Tavern.

The tavern's stone building dates to 1776 and was originally home to a reverend and his wife and 19 children, according to the tavern. The National Cemetery, where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago next month, is across the street.

Now, motor coach tours stop to dine from a menu that includes William Penn's Pork Tenderloin and New York Colony Strip Steak. Business held steady for a week into the shutdown before slowing down last week, Mr. Beamer said.

"October is usually one of our busiest months of the year, and I think it will be down significantly because of the battlefield closure," he said, adding: "There's just less people around in general."

More than one tourist last week said they had been unsure what remained open. Gerri Gunn, a retired nurse, had traveled from Anacortes, Wash., to visit her brother and sister-in-law. The group planned to bypass the Gettysburg sites because the park's website said it was closed. But they learned while stopped for lunch that they could still tour the visitor center.

"It was a wonderful experience," Ms. Gunn said. "It's something every person should know about our country."

GettysBike Tours, located by the visitor center, has maps showing guests which roads are open and which are off-limits. Kelly Steenstra, the manager, said she has been telling visitors that the new routes have not diminished the quality of the guided tours.

"They can still give just as much information," she said.

Regardless, there have been cancellations. Saturdays in October are among the company's busiest days, but as of Wednesday only a few people had reserved a bicycle.

Outside the visitor center, Natasha Fayerman, 38, and Ed Pitt, 44, from Boston were preparing to see the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 377-foot-long painting depicting Pickett's charge. The shutdown had already stymied their efforts to see the Assateague Island National Seashore and the museums in Washington, and so they were looking forward to checking something off their itinerary.

"The memorials are outside," Ms. Fayerman, a life coach, said. "You'd think they'd be open. All of them are closed."

Bob and Rosemary Morace, both 70, of Oceanside, Calif., came to Gettysburg as part of a monthlong tour that has taken them to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. Mr. Morace said he has wanted to see the battlefields for many years. Both were frustrated that the standoff in Washington had closed the park.

"It hurts my heart," Rosemary Morace said. "That is the people's land. It's not the government's land. People died on that field for the freedom of individuals. Regardless of whether there's a shutdown, we should be able to honor them."

state - businessnews

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141. First Published October 13, 2013 8:00 PM


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