ST. CROIX FALLS, Wis. – The leaves are nearly ready, glinting gold. Shops and restaurants here are set, adorned with orange and red posters. A banner spans Washington Street: Autumn Fest!
The height of the fall color season is approaching along the shores of the St. Croix River. But one key destination appears indifferent. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, managed by the National Park Service, is closed as part of the federal government shutdown, its visitors centers locked shut. At least one boat tour and canoe rental business had to shut down along with it.
As one of the busiest weekends of the year approaches for businesses here and across the river in Taylors Falls, Minn., many motel managers, restaurant owners and outfitters are uneasy but optimistic. They point out that while the riverway is closed, nearby state parks remain open.
But for others, the closure hits hard. No longer able to launch off Park Service land, Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak Rental closed shop, temporarily. “It’s a bummer,” owner Amy Frischmon said.
About 150 middle school kids were supposed to paddle the river Wednesday. Frischmon figures she lost about 10 other day-of rentals, too.
Then Frischmon got word that her family’s other longtime business, Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours, would have to halt operations, too. Frischmon had figured that the tours were OK leaving from and returning to a private dock, and the Taylors Falls Princess took to the river Wednesday.
“We were told that anyone with a conditional-use authorization must cease operations,” said Frischmon, her voice heavy with frustration. So starting Thursday, no more boat tours, either.
Still, the worst thing that could happen is visitors getting scared away, Frischmon said, “The businesses are open … the leaves are just starting to turn now. It’s beautiful. There’s no reason for people to avoid Taylors Falls at all if they want to see fall colors.”
A 2011 report by the National Park Service estimated that 273,729 visitors to the riverway — which covers 255 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers and their headwaters in Minnesota and Wisconsin — spent $8.8 million in cities and towns. Lodging, food and beverage services received the bulk of that spending: 63 percent.
Will the ‘leaf lookers’ come?
Working the bar at the Dalles House at midday Wednesday, owner Sonya Fry was serving regulars. One man, wearing a ball cap, wasn’t sure what to order.
“Fish sliders?” she suggested. “What’s the one with coleslaw?” he asked. “The Croix burger.” “Yes, that. No bun.”
By Friday, the place should be filled with “leaf lookers,” as Fry calls them. The restaurant will host a special wine tasting Thursday night as part of this weekend’s Autumn Fest celebration. They hired bands for Friday and Saturday nights.
But she’s nervous that the park closure might cut down on crowds.
“It’s a really hard business to be in right now,” Fry said, noting the rising cost of ingredients and the cut in profits from the state smoking ban. “We appreciate these big weekends that come up. And if they’re not good …”
Though it includes a slew of events by businesses, Autumn Fest was to be hosted by the National Park Service.
At 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, the St. Croix city clerk got an e-mail: “If the federal government remains shut down … the following changes will be made to the Autumn Fest activities that have been planned by the National Park Service.”
The family dance party, the “finding Bigfoot” walks and the art fair are all still on.
But the mural — with paint provided by the National Park Service — would be nixed. Several performances would move. And the closing reception? Gone.
But “a wealth” of activities remain, said Catherine Veith-Bruno, executive director of the Falls Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the two cities. “The businesses are here, and they’re open.”
Centers, campgrounds closed
Not the Park Service campgrounds, though. Or their interpretive centers.
On a leisurely trip to Minneapolis, Terry Baker, 67, and his wife, Sue Saxhaug, 63, saw a sign for a St. Croix National Scenic Riverway center. So the couple, from Eagle River, Wis., stopped.
But as they approached the door, they saw the sign: “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.”
It wasn’t a stop they planned on, so it was no big deal, Baker said. Lunch, instead. “We just like to go,” he said, throwing his hand in the air.
They wondered about another stop, the Fort Snelling National Cemetery, and whether that, too, would be closed. It remains open.
But they didn’t plan to check beforehand. If it’s closed, Baker joked, “we’ll just climb the fence.”
Staff writer Kevin Giles contributed to this report.