At Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria, the leaves are only about half-emerged and the water has been so cold that even the crappies haven’t moved into shallow water to spawn, as they usually do this time of year. But Ryan Sansness, the park’s assistant manager, isn’t dreading the summer ahead.
“We’re getting ready for a packed weekend,” he said.
Across Minnesota, the late-arriving spring, increased confidence in the economy and pricey airfares have residents planning close-to-home trips to resorts, campgrounds, festivals and other outdoor-related activities as Memorial Day weekend kicks off the season, tourism officials say.
Minnesotans weary of a winter that would not quit even appear undeterred by recent high gas prices.
“Our industry is pretty optimistic about the summer,” said John Edman, agency director for Explore Minnesota Tourism. “Consumers are feeling better about the economy. There’s also this pent-up demand. People are wanting to get out, and they’ve been waiting for the [warmer] weather like we’re having now for so long.”
Forty-four percent of Minnesota’s lodging and camping businesses expect an increase in revenue for the summer season, and 38 percent are projecting higher occupancy rates, according to a recent Explore Minnesota survey of 240 hospitality businesses. The results are virtually the same as last year, and tourism officials say lodging occupancy this summer is likely to surpass rates reached before the recession hit in 2008.
That outlook could translate into good news for the state economy: Tourism is an $11.9 billion industry in Minnesota, employing close to 240,000 people.
A summer upturn can’t come soon enough for the industry. Record snowfalls into May and lingering cold delayed spring travel and resulted in less activity for outdoor recreation, according to the Explore Minnesota survey. It also has posed challenges for some parks and campsites preparing for Memorial Day weekend.
At Lake Carlos State Park, workers couldn’t open up the water pipes until May 9, which meant they had to haul hot water to clean the showers and bathrooms to get them ready for campers, Sansness said.
Earlier this week, grass in the park was close to needing its first mowing of the year, several weeks later than normal. But Sansness said visitors still should find a nearly full schedule of holiday weekend activities.
At Vermilion Barging, a company that moves materials around Lake Vermilion, Sheri Sawatzky said cabin owners probably will be undeterred by spring’s slow warm-up. Many will come up because it’s the traditional cabin-opening weekend, with an extra day to get work done.
Pain at the pump
Gas prices are averaging about $3.67 a gallon nationwide, while the Minnesota average was $4.16 Friday, according to GasBuddy.com. But that was down from $4.29 a week ago, and prices at many locations in the metro and statewide had dropped well below $4 Friday.
Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota, a trade group that represents Minnesota’s restaurant, lodging, resort and campground associations, expects the price hikes to be temporary, not a “long-term systemic problem” that will force consumers to stay home this summer.
Resort and campground owners are telling him that summer bookings are ahead of last year. “Some of them are well ahead of last year,” McElroy said. “Some are frustrated because the opening weekend of fishing was bad, in some cases lost. But the meat of their business is June, July and August, and those bookings look pretty good.”
McElroy added that Minnesotans seeking to save money on gas are looking for closer-to-home activities and trips — particularly summer festivals such as WE Fest in Detroit Lakes and Tall Ships in Duluth.
That’s encouraging news for Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit Duluth. Last year, the city launched an ad campaign emphasizing that Duluth was open to tourism despite damaging floods. This year, another campaign will begin in early June, this time stressing Duluth as a Minnesota destination for major events such as Tall Ships in July.
“In spite of the flood … we were able to bounce back from that and actually had a record summer” in 2012, Mattson said. “It was even bigger than 2011. So 22 out of the last 23 years have been record tourism years.”
Campers heading to Jay Cooke State Park, near Duluth, which was devastated by last year’s flooding, will find the campgrounds open this weekend, as well as most trails. Hwy. 210 is open into the park from the west. But the famed Swinging Bridge won’t be fully repaired and open until late summer.
Traffic outbound from the metro area Friday afternoon was heavy. A detour for bridge repair on southbound Interstate 35E at its junction with I-35W in Burnsville caused backups, but lane restrictions on I-94 between St. Cloud and Clearwater had been lifted for the weekend.
“Folks getting out of metro have got to remember: You’re not going to be alone on the freeway,” said Don Zenanko of the state Transportation Department’s Traffic Management Center. “Not only going out, but everyone coming back at the same time Monday, might want to leave a little bit earlier.”
Some advantages, cautions
Tourism and traffic aside, the late-starting summer weather may actually provide some advantages. Mosquitoes shouldn’t be a problem, said University of Minnesota Extension entomologist Jeff Hahn. But ticks could be, so the pants-tucked-in-socks look should be as contemporary as ever.
The Department of Natural Resources also reminded Minnesotans that “warmer weather does not mean warm water.” “For boaters and swimmers, our current water temperatures can prove dangerous, or even deadly, if they don’t consider the effect cold water has on their body,” said Capt. Greg Salo.
Although many spring plants have been late getting started, people who get out this weekend may encounter spring phenomena that they’ve often missed by the time Memorial Day rolls around.
Marsh marigolds seem to be at their peak at Lake Carlos State Park, Sansness said. In the North Woods, trees and wildflowers are running about two weeks late but are showing brilliant spring colors, said Grand Rapids phenologist John Latimer. One flower, trailing arbutus, is running about a month late, he added.
Because the trees still aren’t fully leaf-covered, it’s easier to spot birds in the woods, added Minnesota DNR spokeswoman Kaija Helmetag.
In the Twin Cities area, new grass has only recently started to cover graves at Lakewood Cemetery that were dug over the winter, because running water wasn’t available until recently, said president Ron Gjerde. But he said the cemetery should be ready for Monday’s annual Memorial Day event, which this year will be a commemoration of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and the key role Minnesotans played in the Union victory.