Visitors headed north as temperatures warmed

Lodging tax receipts reflect record-cold spring, late ice-out

file photo
Vince Schute Wildlife Sanctuary, near Orr, attracts bear fans from across the world. It's one of many attractions in the North Country.
Tom Klein

REGIONAL – Area resorts and businesses offered a mixed assessment of the 2013 summer tourism season, blaming poor weather for dampening the start of the season.

“I’m hearing mixed results,” said Nancy Dougherty, executive director of the Lake Vermilion Resort and Tourism Association. “A couple reported a great summer, but a couple said that it is slower than last year. Overall, we’re down a little bit from last year, but hopefully we’ll be on track by the end of the year.”

That analysis is borne out by lodging tax receipts. May was down considerably due to cold weather and ice conditions, according to Dougherty, but July lodging tax receipts were up from the year before, although still below receipts from 2011.

Jay Schelde, president of the Lake Vermilion Resort and Tourist Association, said the reports he received were largely positive.

“From what I’ve heard, business was pretty much the same or better,” he said. “Spring was tough because of the late ice-out this year, but I think the summer was good this year. And I’ve heard a lot of comments that the fall season looks better this year. I know my business is up,” said Schelde, who owns Pike Bay Lodge.

Schelde credits the bright prospects for fall to a variety of factors, including good fishing, the fall colors and crisp weather. “A lot of people like to come up in the fall, even some family groups,” he said.

Although the nation is struggling economically, Schelde said the number of people who delayed or canceled vacations in the past seems to be dwindling. “People who are still working have decided they’re going to do what they like to do,” said Schelde.

Weather a factor

Weather was a factor at Ely resorts and businesses this summer, as well, according to Linda Fryer, who retired as director of the Ely Chamber of Commerce but is still involved in promoting tourism for the region.

“I will say this, the weather definitely did not help us this summer,” said Fryer, who said tourism didn’t really get going until the Fourth of July weekend.

“August and September (lodging tax) numbers will tell us how we did for the summer, “ Fryer said. “We are lagging behind last year. We won’t really have the full story until October or so.”

Jim Mealey, owner of Mealey’s Gift and Sauna Shop and Ely Surplus Outlet, said his business was about equal with last year’s. “We had a late start but in spite of that, business was good,” he said.

“It wasn’t too bad considering we missed out on the first half of the first month of tourist season,” said Joe Tome, general manager of The Boathouse Brewpub and Restaurant. “It wasn’t 100 percent and we weren’t as comfortable (with sales) as we wanted to be. We were definitely not on par with where we were last year. July and August were right on and September is looking good so far. But we lost that first month and it was hard to catch up after that.”

Jim Schiefelbein, owner of North Country Canoe Outfitters, experienced the same issues.

“Our season went okay,” he said. “It wasn’t great and it didn’t fall apart. We didn’t see growth. That is evidenced by the lodging tax being off.”

It’s a similar story across the Arrowhead Region.

Crane Lake resorts reported mixed results. Although the season got off to a slow start, business picked up over the summer, according to Jerry Pohlman at Nelson’s Resort.

Gretchen Janssen at Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats said the houseboat business was down this summer, largely due to uncooperative weather, but the newly-rebuilt lodge enjoyed brisk business. “Our rooms at the lodge were full and the dining room was busy most weekends,” she said.

Carole Scott said business was down a bit at Scott’s Seaplane Base and Resort, but she blamed part of the decline on a drop in business from the Twin Cities related to fall sports programs. Seasons are starting sooner, she explained, and families that traditionally took vacations in August are foregoing them.

“The baseball and football seasons are running right into each other in some of the Twin Cities suburbs,” she explained.

Rob Scott said despite a cold start, the tourism season picked up as the temperatures rose. “But everthing from the flow of the water to the fish bite to the bugs was off by about three weeks,” he said.

Ray Ingebretesen said he hasn’t polled the members of the Pelican Lake Resort Association yet, but Aspen Resort, which he’s owned for 17 years, had one of its best summers.

“The cold May weather didn’t affect us as much because Pelican isn’t really a walleye lake,” he said. “It’s more of a crappie and panfish lake and some resorts don’t even open for the walleye opener.”

Once the summer tourism season began, he said, “We went gangbusters.” But he’s heard from at least one other resort that business was down for some.

Ingebretsen added that fall business is down slightly because fewer tags were issued for bear hunters. “They bring us a lot of business in September,” he said. Even so, he expects 2013 to be one of the top three years for Aspen Resort.

Tayna Schoewe, chief of intepretation at Voyageurs National Park, said overall visitation numbers at the park were down. The park has been averaging about 250,000 visitors annually but has attracted about 210,000 in each of the last two years.

She said part of the decline can be traced to sequestration, which forced the Park Service to reduce hours at its visitor centers and has delayed the development of new campsites.

Meanwhile, numbers at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary remained stable with 11,500 visitors logged in at the center this summer, according to Nancy Glass. That’s down from the center’s high of more than 20,000 visitors during a summer but consistent with visitor numbers in recent years.

Bright spots

On the bright side, Schiefelbein reported some growth in new markers. The response from tourists in Iowa was definitely a growth area, he noted.

Mealy said the introduction of unique products at his store has boosted business.

“We continue to bring in new and one-of-a-kind items,” he said. “What I see more and more is that people are interested in American-made items, from footwear to furniture to art. We are trying to increase that for our customers.”

Meanwhile, Fryer noted that the nature of the tourist seems to be changing. “We are seeing people take shorter vacations, like three or four days, and with our location up here, they don’t always want to do a six- or eight-hour drive.”

Fryer also noted that folks want a more organized itinerary during their visits. “They visit the Bear Museum, the Wolf Center, the Dorothy Molter Museum, the history museum, then they ask what else is there to do,” said Fryer. “Our challenge is to answer that question to keep our tourism strong here in Ely.”

Rob Scott, who runs Peaceful Valley Resort on Crane Lake, said he’s observed more anglers abandoning trips to Canada to stay on the Minnesota side. The exchange rate isn’t as favorable as it once was, he noted, and Crane Lake allows anglers to keep more fish than they are allowed in bordering Canadian waters. In addition, the hassle of obtaining a passport has dissuaded some from going to Canada.

Meanwhile, he said, Crane Lake has benefitted from the implementation of a protected slot limit for walleyes (walleyes ranging in size from 17 to 28 inches must be released) and a revision in the rule curve that avoids large dips in lake levels, which previously plagued Crane Lake and Lake Kabetogama. “The fishing’s gotten better,” he said.

Timberjay editors Marshall Helmberger and Keith Vandervort contributed to this report.


1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

I see much of central Minnesota was down as much as 30% this year due to the late spring.

Also it seems people still like the north woods concept of being a wild place and want to get away from the populated and developed areas.

Sunday, September 22, 2013 | Report this