County took hit during Balloon Fiesta week

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By Arin McKenna

The government shutdown ended Wednesday night and a default on the nation’s debt was averted, but the 16-day stalemate in Congress was not without consequences.

Standard & Poor’s estimates the shutdown has taken at least $24 billion out of the United States economy. The financial ratings agency has lowered its estimate of fourth quarter gross domestic product growth by at least 0.6 percent.

The local economy has felt the impact as well.

Subcontractors whose projects were suspended will not be able to recover lost revenues from that period. Hotels and restaurants, particularly in White Rock, took a hit.

Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve were not only closed during one of the peak tourist seasons of the year, but both had to cancel major yearly events: the Fall Fiesta at Bandelier and the Elk Festival at the Valles.

The national park closures sent ripple effects throughout Los Alamos County, particularly during the two-week Balloon Fiesta window, when many visitors plan trips to area attractions.

During the Lodgers’ Tax Advisory Board meeting Tuesday, Meeting and Visitor Bureau Manager Mike Lippiatt described White Rock as a “ghost town” during the government shutdown, largely due to the lack of tourism to Bandelier National Monument.

“October numbers almost do not exist. We had about 3,500 people through the White Rock Visitor Center during Balloon Fiesta week last year. That was the first full month that visitor center was functional and included the shuttle program,” Lippiatt said.

“We’re just a little over 350 for that same week this year. The White Rock Visitor Center is about 90 percent down.”
Lippiatt will not have firm numbers on October visitation until December, but his own experience supported those numbers.

“I was there last Friday from 1-4:30 and three people walked through there. Friday of Balloon Fiesta week,” Lippiatt said.

The good news was that Los Alamos still had a good influx of visitors during Balloon Fiesta. Lippiatt reported that during the four days he was at the Los Alamos Visitor Center it was often “elbow to elbow,” keeping the four people manning the center busy most of the day.

Both visitor centers and Griffin & Associates, which manned the Los Alamos booth at Balloon Fiesta, were directing visitors to the Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum, Fuller Lodge and Overlook Park, as well as the Puye Cliff Dwellings.

The museums both reported good attendance during Balloon Fiesta week.

“I can tell you anecdotally we have been very crowded. And also anecdotally, we have had dozens upon dozens of people tell us they were here because of closures at Bandelier, Valles Caldera and even Pecos National Monument,” said Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Historical Museum. “In fact, we had a busload that was going to go to Pecos National Monument and ended up coming here.”

McClenahan noted that the first Friday in October is historically one of their busiest days because of Balloon Fiesta and the annual opening of the Trinity Site at White Sands National Monument on the first Saturday of October. Although the Trinity Site event was cancelled due to the shutdown, numbers were still high.

Sales in the museum’s gift shop increased by $500 for the two-week Balloon Fiesta window, up eight percent from the previous year.

The Bradbury also had good numbers during Balloon Fiesta, but the museum had a narrow escape. If the government shutdown had not been averted on Wednesday, Los Alamos National Laboratory was scheduled to suspend operations on Friday. Since the museum is part of the laboratory, it would have had to close its doors at the same time.

“We’re happy to keep operating, and also really pleased that High-Tech Halloween is going to be able to happen,” Executive Director Linda Deck said. “That was a big concern of ours, too, because it’s such a tradition here. It’s one of our biggest attendance events in the whole year, and people love it.”

High-Tech Halloween is part of Trick or Treat on Mainstreet, from 4–6:30 Oct. 25.

David Empey, vice president, Griffin & Associates, reported on the Balloon Fiesta promotion. The firm distributed approximately 600 visitor guides, 1,100 postcards and 400 Bandelier promotional brochures at the event.

Empey said it was disappointing that Bandelier personnel were unable to help man the booth. The park usually sends two park rangers and someone dressed as the park’s mascot squirrel.

The real disappointment were the closures at Bandelier and the Valles Caldera.

“We had this family from Kansas,” Empey said. “Their kids started crying when they found out they couldn’t go to Bandelier. They had been on the road for like five days and hadn’t heard about it.”

Empey reported that much of their time was spent dispelling the notion that Los Alamos itself was closed.

Many people had heard something about Los Alamos National Laboratory shutting down and assumed the entire town of Los Alamos was closed.

Agatha Marquez, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express and Suites, reported that the hotel was feeling the impact of the shutdown, mainly due to operations scaling back at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“Bookings are down, groups are cancelling,” Marquez said. “We had one group cancelled that had booked 18 rooms for nine days or so. I lost a lot of revenue. And occupancy numbers are down, too.”

Lippiatt summed up the impact for the board.

“We were able to keep it maintained, able to keep people in town, hopefully spend a little money, and it wasn’t a complete loss,” Lippiat said. “But we are taking a hit at the White Rock Visitor Center right now, directly related to the government shutdown.”