The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Small town merchants feeling big-time pain
On the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west the leaves are changing to autumn colors of brown and gold.
In Sperryville, at the base of the mountains, there is color, too. Merchants there are seeing red— both financially and figuratively.
First, those who operate the fruit stands and the artisan shops in the small Rappahannock County community are losing money big-time because of the federal government shutdown.
Second, they are furious at Congress and President Barack Obama for allowing this financial crisis to occur.
“I will never again vote for anyone who is in office now,” growled Phyllis Swindler, whose family owns and operates Beech Spring Fruit Stand and Quilt Shop.
At this time of the year, her business should be bustling with tourists heading up onto Skyline Drive in cars and buses to enjoy the autumn colors.
This year, however, the Shenandoah National Park is closed because of the government shutdown and about the only customers in her store are the few who haven’t heard about the closure.
“The shutdown has affected us tremendously,” Swindler said. “October is our busiest month by far.”
Down State Route 211 about a quarter of a mile, Barbara Gore, whose father founded Atkins Fruit Stand, echoes those same sentiments.
“If we don’t do it on October, we don’t do it,” she says. “We’re usually busy the whole month.”
Unfortunately, the government shutdown has now taken away two of her most profitable weeks and there is no end to the Washington stalemate in sight.
“Last week we did about one-third of our expected business,” added Gore. “And this week has been dead.”
The loss of this weekend is particularly damaging.
“This weekend is usually our very best of the whole year because it is a three-day weekend and the color is peaking,” Gore says.
Not only will Gore and Swindler lose the profit from sales, they may also lose perishable merchandise, especially apples and cider, the mountain-grown items that tempt tourists to stop and shop.
“Apples only keep so long,” says Gore.
“And cider turns hard in a couple of weeks,” says Swindler. “That could be a complete loss.”
Both owners bought large containers of apples and coolers full of cider in anticipation of business that now, because of the park closure, may never come.
Swindler points out that not selling the apples and cider that she has on hand will prevent her from restocking, which means a loss of business to producers.
“It trickles down to everybody,” she says.
“I hire part-time help—especially high school kids—this time of year, but if this keeps up I may be forced to let them go,” Swindler says. “I’ve never had to do that before. It is sad.”
Both Gore and Swindler were also highly critical of the way Shenandoah National Park employees are handling the situation.
“They have put rangers at every little trail up the mountain to stop people from walking into the park,” Gore says. “People have tried to get in at Old Rag [Mountain] and they’ve been turned away.”
Swindler is also angry about ranger protocol during the shutdown.
“They’re having cars towed that were parked up along Route 211,” she says. “And they’re threatening trespassers with $500 fines.”
Anger seems to be the optimum word for tourists, too.
“I went up there and made them tell me I couldn’t go in,” exclaims Nancy Scott, an elderly tourist from Raleigh, N.C.
Cindy Roudenbush, a traveling nurse from Indiana now working in Arlington, said that she and her husband had room reservations at Skyland Sunday night.
“I figured they wouldn’t be open because of the shutdown, but I called to cancel anyway,” Roudenbush said. “I was told that if I hadn’t canceled I would have been charged for one night. How could they charge me when the park was closed and I couldn’t get to Skyland?”
This would have been Roudenbush’s first chance to see the fall colors in Shenandoah National Park. For her it was only a minor inconvenience. It was much more costly for others.
“One of my customers said she had come all the way from Sweden to go up on the mountain this fall,” said Gore. “The woman said she had planned the trip for two years. She couldn’t get in.”
Those affected by the park’s closure and the government shutdown are not hesitant to point the finger of blame.
“I blame the president,” said Swindler. “He’s as stubborn as a little kid.”
Andrew Haley, however, who operates Sperryville Pottery, sees it differently.
“It’s pretty clearly Congress’s fault,” he said. In particular he sees the tea party as the biggest culprit.
“They’re killing the Republican Party,” Haley said.
Both Gore and Roudenbush think that President Obama and Congress share equal blame.
“The power seems to be going to their heads,” said Roudenbush.
Swindler, whose business suffers every day of the shutdown, said she thinks it is a crime that government workers will be reimbursed for lost wages when the shutdown ends.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “They’re going to get paid, but we’re never going to get this lost business back.”
And those losses mount every day the government is shut down and the Shenandoah National Park is closed.