Shutdown Notebook: Parks First Place Minnesotans Feel Shutdown

Group enjoys closed Gooseberry

The most noticeable impact of Minnesota’s government shutdown was predictable: state park users on a holiday weekend.

“We’re 400 miles away from home,” said one father at the entrance to Gooseberry Falls State Park Friday as his children piled out of a van to walk down to the falls.

The park, one of the state’s most popular, technically was closed after state leaders failed to agree on a budget for the two years beginning Friday. But Department of Natural Resources officials allowed people to hike and ride bicycles in parks, but campgrounds, buildings and park roads were closed.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said there could be an up-side to closed campgrounds: “I’ll bet all the beds along the North Shore are filled.”

Not all vacationers found alternative places to park their recreational vehicles or sleep.

By Friday afternoon, Bemidji KOA fielded “quite a few” telephone calls from people desperate to find a new site. Carissa Vannoy, owner of the Bemidji campground with about 80 sites and five cabins, said people started calling Wednesday to look for new accommodations as a shutdown began to seem likely.

“We were pretty much booked up, but we did have a few spots open for the weekend,” she said. “We’re using overflow now.”

Janet Flick said the Sportsman’s Lodge near Baudette has been swamped with emails since Wednesday from travelers hoping to make last-minute camping reservations for the weekend. But the lodge’s six campsites were booked.

Most of all, she said, many people “don’t know what to do” now that their fishing and camping plans for the weekend have been disrupted.

“We’ve heard even from some of our people that have stayed with us that are leaving today that they don’t know where they’re going to go,” she said. “They’re just getting on the road and figuring it out as they go.”

In southeastern Minnesota, employees at Hok Si La Municipal Campground in Lake City and Hay Creek Valley Campground in Hay Creek said they were getting calls from campers who are concerned about the closing of state parks.

“The phone is ringing continually,” said Joanne Klees, park manager at Hok Si La.

A concern for Hok Si La is that an increased number of visitors to the beach might mean the need for more staff to keep it clean.

“We run with a really with a small staff,” Klees said.

While Minnesota’s state parks closed their gates and turned off water and electricity hookups this week, state parks in nearby states were busy taking requests from holiday travelers who were looking for a new place to stay.

Steve Crandell, Turtle River State Park manager in North Dakota, said the park’s 125 campsites were reserved a couple of weeks ago.

Smooth shutdown start

The state agency coordinating the government shutdown, a result of state leaders failing to agree on a state budget, reported no problems the first day.

“Things actually are being managed very well,” Minnesota Management and Budget spokesman John Pollard said. “We have not had any major surprises so far.”

Questions, yes; problems, no. That, he said, is a testament to work employees did to prepare for a shutdown, work that began when the regular legislation session ended May 23 with no budget agreement.

Pollard said that Friday normally could be considered a slow day anyway, given it fell just before a holiday weekend.

“Citizens and the public are on holiday break and therefore may not be lining up for the normal government services they have come to expect,” Pollard said, but added that Tuesday could bring more problems.

Car hop service?

The secretary of state’s staff is providing something akin to the old car-hop service to people using its State Office Building facility across from the Capitol.

The building, known as the SOB, is closed even though legislative workers and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office housed there are running at full staff.

So, signs are posted on each SOB door with maps to the secretary of state’s office that deals with business matters elsewhere in St. Paul and a telephone number for people seeking elections information from those in the SOB office.

Spokeswoman Pat Turgeon said office workers will “be happy to go outside” and talk to anyone with a question.

In the shutdown’s first few hours, as temperatures neared 100 degrees, no one took Ritchie’s office up on its offer.

Logging OK’d

Loggers who have purchased trees in Minnesota state forests can continue to cut them during the state government shutdown, a state district court judge ruled Friday.

Three logger members of the Minnesota Timber Producers industry group filed suit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to keep access open to state forests during the shutdown of state government.

Koochiching County District Court Judge Charles LeDuc issued a temporary restraining order against the state of Minnesota that allows logging to continue in state forests during the government shutdown.

DNR forestry officials had said they didn’t want timber cutting to continue while they were off the job. But the loggers say the contracts require them to follow best management practices no matter who is watching.

Shutdown slows businesses

The shutdown likely will affect when new businesses get their required approval from state departments.

Me and Julio, a new restaurant coming to Hastings, plans to open July 14, but it can do so only if it can get its final inspection completed before then.

“It’s one of those things: You just go on as planned, get your work done, and keep your fingers crossed,” General Manager Brian Riess said.

Families threatened

The government shutdown could boot three Red Wing families out of homes, like could happen in many other Minnesota communities.

That is because the HOPE Coalition’s transitional housing program, which provides housing for homeless families, relies on grants from the state’s Department of Human Services Office of Economic Opportunity. And it is closed.

Kris Kvols, president of HOPE Coalition, said the group’s previous two- year state grant expired Thursday. The non-profit organization applied for a renewal in March, but with the shutdown the state cannot award new grants.

Like in other situations, it is not clear what services HOPE will be able to offer.

“In terms of being able to say what will be going, it’s hard to say at this point,” Kvoles said.

A “special master” heard cases Friday and will again on Tuesday as organizations seek to keep state funding despite the shutdown.

Good and bad news

The shutdown has helped some businesses.

The parking lot at the Pipeline Travel Plaza in Alexandria was filled with trucks, campers and cars that were unable to stop at state rest stops.

“It has somewhat of a good impact and a bad impact,” said Michele Baker, manager of the Pipeline.

While the truck stop, gas station and store was seeing more customers Friday, “we can’t sell Lottery tickets,” Baker said.

Baker estimated a daily loss of at least $500 associated with not being able to sell the tickets. The Lottery is operated by the state and it is closed.

Happy for tags

Scott Olsen of Moorhead visited the Department of Motor Vehicles Friday to renew his vehicle license plate tags.

“I think people assume it’s closed and it’s not,” he said. “Since no one is here (in line), it was quick getting in and out.”

Some of the visitors at the DMV in Moorhead were pleasantly surprised by the smaller lines.

“There was only one person in front of me in line,” Nancy Erickson of Moorhead said. “I was worried they’d be closed today, so I planned on coming yesterday, but today worked out. I’m worried about the shutdown and how it will affect me, but nothing has happened yet.”

Local project iffy

Even local government projects may be affected by the state government shutdown.

“It will definitely have an impact on them,” Goodhue County Public Works Director Greg Isakson said.

One of the biggest unknowns is how Goodhue County Public Works will be able to work without the advice from Minnesota Department of Transportation officials.

“If we need a recommendation, we just don’t have those people around,” Isakson said.

Citizens not happy

A survey of east Twin Cities residents produced reaction to the shutdown like elsewhere in Minnesota.

Working at a Cottage Grove coffee shop, Kayla Ross said she was irked that she had to cancel her plans to go camping over the July 4 weekend.

The sentiment among Ross and other Cottage Grove residents as the shutdown became reality was that both sides didn’t get their work done and were to blame.

“They need to think about who they’re representing and not just their political views,” said Ross, a Starbucks Coffee employee.

“The government is too polarized,” offered Marybeth Schueller, who was at the nearby Caribou Coffee. “They drew a line in the sand and that’s it. There’s too much black and white thinking.”

Pay your taxes

The Revenue Department said it will continue to process tax payments and Minnesotans must meet their tax deadlines.

While tax deadlines remain in place, the Revenue Department has no one to answer Minnesotans’ tax questions.

 Forum Communications Co. newspapers from across Minnesota contributed to this report.